Writing Big Scenes In A Novel

This post, by Steven Ramirez, originally appeared on his Glass Highway site and is reprinted here in its entirety with the author’s permission.

Normally I don’t like to talk about a work-in-progress. For me, it’s better to actually write than talk about the writing. Anyway, here’s the thing. I’ve been slogging through my new zombie novel—yes, that’s right, I am daring to be awesome—and I am at the point where things need to get bigger. I mean, really big. Like soldiers and guns against ravening armies of the Undead. My only problem? I don’t do big.

If you’ve read any of my work, you’ll know right away that I am the kind of writer who likes to focus on small, tense situations with very few characters. And over the years I’ve refined those particular chops. I am pretty comfortable coming up with painful dilemmas for these poor imaginary souls. And I always find a way to write my way out of them. Or else the characters die at the end, which is fine with me.

But now I’ve taken on a much bigger project, which is not to say I am writing about the zombie apocalypse. No, there are plenty of good books, movies and television shows covering that ground. I am particularly fond of ‘The Walking Dead‘ on AMC.

Small can be Big My story has more in common with the original ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ You know how that one goes, right? First, there’s a single zombie (actually they are referred to as ghouls in the movie) stumbling around the cemetery where Johnny and Barbra have just laid a wreath at their father’s grave. Soon the gates of Hell open and now a bunch of twitchy strangers are trapped in a farmhouse, trying to find a way to stay alive while outside a horde of these ghouls is clawing its way in.

I watched George A. Romero’s excellent horror movie the other night and guess what. It still holds up. The writing is great. Not only is there the requisite gore but he gives us plenty of humor as well. Like when the field reporter, played by Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, interviews Sheriff McClelland and asks him, “Are they slow-moving, chief?” People pay good money for those kinds of laughs.

Romero does a great job of hinting at a bigger movie. Through a series of television reports, he lets us know that pretty much the entire eastern third of the United States has been overrun by ghouls. He tells us that top scientists are meeting with the President of the United States and that soon the National Guard could be deployed. But he never shows us those scenes—brilliant!

Now of course if you interviewed Mr. Romero, he’d probably smile affectionately like you were some kind of moron and say something like, “Of course, I didn’t show that. We had no money!” Fair enough.

Getting back to my book… Budget is irrelevant so I am free to write big scenes if I want to. The problem is, I really don’t know how without mimicking every apocalyptic disaster movie ever made. I refer to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. In that book, the unnamed narrator carefully describes the Martian invasion. Compare that to Steven Spielberg’s version from 2005. Night and day, my friend. Night and day.

Time for Plan “B” Because these kinds of set pieces don’t come naturally to me, I am forced to try another approach. I’ve decided that I will tell myself the story—in my head so that people don’t think I am a lunatic. In fact, I will describe scenes to myself as if I were watching a movie—but my movie.

Once I’ve gotten down the big strokes, I will then dissect the scenes and write about them piece by ear-splitting, gut-busting, brain-bleeding piece. With luck when I suture the parts together, I will have me one whopping good scene.

Will it work? I’m happy to report that I’ve begun to rewrite a few chapters this way and I believe it is in fact working. And to be clear, this is not big for big’s sake. The story requires it. At some point, the National Guard is deployed and given that they usually arrive packing lots of cool weapons, military vehicles and helicopters, things must get bigger. Which leads me to my next problem.

Research is Key Recently I finished reading Stephen King’s excellent On Writing. Unlike James A. Michener, apparently Mr. King doesn’t do a ton of research before banging out a first draft. He is more interested in getting the story out of his system. I imagine the process is like pouring molten bronze into a mold—only there is no mold, just the hot metal holding itself together, somehow defying the laws of physics. Once that’s done and he is revising, he goes back and researches those things that need researching and makes the appropriate adjustments. I actually do some “pre-research,” then more after the first draft.

There’s a lot of research required to make the scenes in my book believable. Not to mention the idioms that people who are in the Army use. On that note, I recently met with a friend of mine, a retired police captain, who clued me in to how a local police department might handle a real outbreak. My next task is to interview someone from the National Guard to better understand how they actually bring order. Fun stuff.

So to recap:

  1. Dream big scenes
  2. Write them in small chunks then string them together
  3. Apply research to correct and enhance the scenes

How does that sound to you? I’d love to hear how other writers handle this. And now for that excellent TV reportage where you’ll hear Sheriff McClelland provide the best description of a zombie ever.


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