Friday, December 21, 2012

Author Helen Hemphill on Scene & Summary, Part 2

YA Author Helen Hemphill is the Director of the Highlights Whole Novel workshop.  She's written three award-winning novels for teens, and she teaches writing at conferences.  I first met her at the SCBWI Carolinas' conference in Fall 2012, where she led a 1/2 day workshop on "Scene and Summary."

Helen, thanks for being back with us for the 2nd part of your interview, sharing with us tips on how to balance scene and summary in our novels!

Jumping right back in where we left off in last Saturday's post, Helen. Can you explain to us how all the little scenes (like Harry potter buying his first wand, or Harry Potter confronting Voldamort in the graveyard,) and the bits of summary in between them that we are writing -- how do we make sure these fit into the plan or plot of the entire book’s story arc? In other words, how do we make sure they fit with proper tension into the “Beginning, Middle, and End” of the book?

As I noted earlier, scenes are the dramatic engine of a novel.  Scenes, along with the summary that connects them, take the reader along a path to a narrative climax.  Lots of times when reading manuscripts for the Whole Novel Workshop, I see one of two things happen.  Either the story is written in summary, telling the reader the events of the novel, or scenes are written (and lots of times the scenes are quite good within themselves), but the scenes are episodic.  They don't lead the reader to a specific moment of crisis for the protagonist.  In storytelling, there must be cause and effect.  Something happens that leads to something else, and each event must move the reader to the climax and conclusion of the story. Typically, when I write a novel I think in scenes, but I'm taking a class now with Dennis Foley on planning and outlining a novel, and I've learned to step back from scenes initially and do the analytical work necessary.  Identify the plot and subplots, sketch out how they will be complicated and then ultimately resolved, then list the scenes needed to fulfill that dramatic arc.  Do this analytical work before the first scene is written.  That exercise helps a writer look at the macro level of plotting, to make sure that each scene serves a purpose. At the micro level, a scene must also have its own tension.  Something must change. Think of each scene as a complete little drama of its own.  There is a problem, complication, resolution that helps structure the scene with a beginning, middle, and end.  

 So, we should plan ahead and plot those scenes into our story along the continuum that is the  entire story.  That sounds like great advice!

 Are there any specific tips or techniques you’d encourage authors to consider, Helen, in order to strengthen their scenes and summaries?

My bias is to look at good movies.  I think for the most part, children are visual readers and want to imagine the scenes in a novel.  Look at any classic movie (Maybe It's a Wonderful Life would be terrific this time of year!), list the scenes, then answer the following questions:
Who's in the scene?
Where does it take place?
What's at stake for the characters going into the scene?
What's at stake for the characters going out of the scene? In other words, what has changed?
How long is the scene...use the digital timer on your computer to note the beginning and ending of the scene.
You will be able to see how the story builds to the climax and resolution, plus by timing the scenes, you can note how the pacing of the overall story works.  

I would also suggest reading and analyzing good novels.  As I said, my bias is writing in scene with little summary, but I recently read The Peculiar by Stefan Backmann, and the prologue of that novel is all summary and done really well.  What makes it work is the voice, and tone, and word choice working together to set up the rest of the story. I thought the plot of the novel fell apart a bit in the end, but the prologue of this book is really stunning. 

Thanks so much for those specific things to look for to understand why a scene is strong, Helen!  That give us something to really look for and take notes on when watching movies or reading scenes in books we love this holiday season!

And I loved the opening of the Peculiar too, Helen. Definitely one of the more gripping pieces of writing I've had the opportunity to read this year.  It is interesting how it pulls us all in, even though, as you say, that part of the book is written mostly as "telling."  Perhaps it works so well because that narrator "tells" with such a brilliantly intriguing voice about such very unusual occurrances. Hmmm... 

Now Helen, you’re the Director of the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop.  Can you tell us about that opportunity for writers, and how interested writers can get involved?

The Highlights Whole Novel Workshop is really a unique opportunity for writers to be paired with trusted readers (faculty) who are also well known authors, editors, or agents, and have their whole manuscripts read and critiqued.  This happens before writers come to the week long Workshop.  The Workshop itself is about revision.  Writers meet one-on-one with their trusted reader mentors, talk through revision ideas, meet in small groups to discuss challenges, listen to lectures given by the faculty, and have writing time so that they can begin to work on manuscript revisions while at the workshop.  Informally, writers then have the chance to talk through revisions as they work and really develop a plan for revision as they leave the Workshop.  Lots of groups continue with attendees in an online forum that gives them the support they need to complete the revision.  It's really a writing community that develops at the Workshop and continues online.  

The Whole Novel Workshop is in its seventh year.  In 2013, we have an amazing faculty, including Alan Gratz, Alexandria LaFaye, Franny Billingsley, Deborah Kovacs, Kirby Larson, Nancy Werlin, Tina Wexler, Linda Pratt, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tracy Barrett, and Tamra Tuller.  The Workshop also has teaching assistants who are published writers that offer feedback and help as needed, and we bring in a special guest for the Workshop, usually an agent or editor, to give additional perspective.  Plus, there's the wonderful hospitality of Highlights--cozy cabins and farm style food that is delicious! It's a terrific week--intense, productive, life changing.  You can get more information or apply to the Whole Novel Workshop by going to  We are already getting manuscripts for the Workshop in March, so join us!

Thanks, Helen!  I know there's a MG writer's week and a YA writer's week at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop. (Info can be found at the links above.) And I'm sure many authors reading this post are hoping to find a trip to the Whole Novel Workshop under their trees this Holiday season!

Well, here’s one last fun question! Since it’s the holiday season, which 2-3 books, other than your own, would be your first choices to give as gifts to teen or middle grade reader friends this Christmas season, and why? 

For the teen reader, definitely The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.  Now, why would I pick a novel about World War II with Death as the narrator?  This book is so much about hope, even in the depths of darkness.  I've read the book multiple times, but the last line, I am haunted by humans, always just hits me in the gut.  Particularly with the events at Newtown in the last week, this story shows readers that even with evil, there is always hope and love in humanity.  No matter how devastating the events or actions, we are never without love. That's a message I want all teens to hear.

For younger readers, I would pick The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis. Actually, I've given this book to several young readers, and for the right child, this book opens up the world of poetry to them. I want all children to have the gift of poetry!  Plus, I love Pablo Neruda, and I'm amazed by the story of Pablo Neruda doing a reading and being ask to read his poem "I can write the saddest lines tonight."  He apologized, saying he couldn't because he didn't have a copy of the poem, but then the audience of several hundred people stood up and recited the poem to him!  That is the power of words, and I want children to know that power.

Thank you so much, Helen, for your love of children, teens, and their books.  Thanks too for the way you are spending your life helping other children's and YA writers get better at their writing! - Janelle


Carol Baldwin said...

I highly recommend writing scenes out this way! I've been doing it every since taking this workshop with Helen and it has helped me tremendously!!

Linda A. said...


Thanks so much for this terrific post with Helen Hemphill. How fortunate we readers are to have this presented for us. Merry Christmas to you both.

Janelle said...

Thanks so much Carol and Linda! A very Merry Christmas to you too!

Carol Baldwin said...

Janelle, I came to your post because I lost my notes from this workshop and am teaching it myself and needed a refresher. Thanks for posting this!