Writing

Scripting the Scene in Nonfiction

One of the best techniques for breathing life into your nonfiction is through carefully crafted scenes. Scene writing is especially useful for pictures book biographies, where you want the reader to identify with your main character and to have an emotional response to their journey.

So what’s a scene? In one of my favorite books, SCENE & STRUCTURE, Jack M. Bickham defines the scene this way: “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented on-stage in the story ‘now.'” (p. 23)

In picture books, scenes are by necessity very short, sometimes just a few sentences. Let’s look at one from my first book, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, to see how the scene works.

What do you notice?

Do you see how I’m narrating the action, almost like I’m telling you what’s happening in a movie? This narration includes specific physical actions (rescuing toys, snatching the ball, trimming and twisting, filing and fitting). I use vivid verbs and onomatopoeia, which I like to think of as the sound of “being there.”

I also give the reader a peek into Lilian’s mind with the rhetorical question: “Would the weather vane work?” It asks the reader to consider the same questions that are likely running through Lilian’s head, those feeling of apprehension and self doubt.

And then when the weather vane does work, we have “Success!” That single-word exclamation reflects Lilian’s feeling of victory.

Now, imagine how this would read if I had simply summarized the events.:

“When she was a little girl, Lilian Todd built a working weather vane out of broken toys and trash. “

What do you notice now?

First off, there’s absolutely zero tension. The reader doesn’t wonder whether Lilian will succeed. They don’t cheer her on or celebrate her victory. In fact, we aren’t in Lilian’s point of view at all. Summaries put a lot of distance between us and the main character. And that’s not what we want. We want our reader to identify with Lilian. She’s their avatar in the book.

Also, the scene takes up several more sentences than the summary — seven sentences versus just one. Because scenes run longer, we can’t write every single part of our story in scene. But for important moments in a character’s journey, we can write in scene to increase tension and emotional resonance.

Here is one important distinction between fiction and nonfiction: because this is nonfiction, I can’t make up the details of this scene. All of this information comes from newspaper interviews Lilian Todd gave later as an adult. From these historic newspapers, I know the materials she picked. I know how she worked on her inventions from the time she was a little girl. I know the location (Washington, D.C., a city) and time of year (winter), which is reflected in the illustrations. I also have a sense of how she handled failure and success. I can document all those details. That’s what makes it nonfiction.

Are you ready to breathe life into your own nonfiction manuscript? I challenge you to take an important moment in your story that’s currently written as a summary and transform it into a short scene. Use some of the techniques above: vivid verbs, onomatopoeia, rhetorical questions, exclamations. What do you think of the result?

Are you ready to take the next step in revising your nonfiction manuscript? Contact me for a coaching session, and we’ll polish up your picture book until it shines. And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to be notified the next time I’m offering my nonfiction picture book revision class at The Writing Barn.

Writing

New Class: Getting Into Graphic Nonfiction

Graphic for Getting Into Graphic Nonfiction Webinar

Calling all writers!

Graphic nonfiction is a growing market with new publishing imprints and book series springing up all the time. This webinar will introduce both seasoned nonfiction writers and nonfiction novices to the exciting world of graphic nonfiction for all ages.

I hope you can join me for this 90-minute webinar through The Writing Barn. It’s only $25, and recordings are available. Learn more and sign up here.

research, Writing

Taming the rabbit hole of research: Keeping a research journal

A spread from my research journal for WOOD, WIRE WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

As nonfiction authors, we often talk about “falling down the rabbit hole of research” to describe how engrossing and time consuming the research process can be.

For me research is less a rabbit hole and more a labyrinth. It’s easy to lose the road I’m on as I chase tangents that splinter off from the main trail.

One thing that makes the research process easier for me is keeping a research journal. Here’s how I use mine to tame the research tangents.

First, when I’m trying to locate specific articles, I keep track of databases I’ve searched. Is that article I needed in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database? On Newspapers.com? At Fultonhistory.com? Where have I already checked? Where do I still need to look? Sometimes I make a simple “to do list” and check things off.

I use this same technique when it comes to contacting experts. Have I contacted that expert yet? When I do, I check off their name, note the date I reached out to them and how (via email, for example).

Sometimes I keep records of what search terms I’ve used in databases. When I studied Lilian Todd for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, I quickly realized Lilian Todd’s name was often misspelled, and she was frequently referred to as “Miss Todd” or even “E. L. Todd” in the news. Knowing this, I ran searches multiple times using different search combinations, and keeping track of what terms I’d tried.

As I read secondary and primary sources, I also jot down new items I need to look into, whether it’s Lilian Todd’s patents (requiring a separate search in the U.S. Patent Office database) or the Junior Aero Club Show at Madison Square Garden (necessitating another dive into the newspaper archives). Making note of a new research topic allows me to put a pin in it, so I can finish reading the chapter or article without getting distracted. Then I can get started on my new tangent.

What hints do you have for wrangling your research? What tips have you found helpful?

Books

You’re Invited to the A TRUE WONDER Book Launch 10/5

It’s party time!

A TRUE WONDER will be out in the world in just six weeks, and I couldn’t be more excited. Illustrator Katy Wu and I will be doing a virtual event through Once Upon A Time Bookstore on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. Pacific/ 8 Eastern. This event is completely free, and I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Please preregister through Once Upon a Time, and they’ll send you the Zoom link. 

BONUS: If you preorder a copy of the book anywhere books are sold, let me know, and I’ll enter you to win the A TRUE WONDER tee shirt. (Drawing will take place 9/29/21. US entries only with apologies to my international friends.)

Once Upon A Time EXCLUSIVE: Order here, and get a free 6×9 art postcard designed by illustrator Katy Wu. And I’ll autograph your copy.