|Photo by Cara Lopez Lee|
I often talk to writers about scenes in terms of opening a fan or accordion. It’s a dynamic way of visualizing the question, “What’s happening between the lines?”
Sometimes we get so caught up in pushing a scene from point A to point B that we glide over opportunities for a more intimate look at the character’s experience. We may offer sensory descriptions, but overlook imbuing those descriptions with the way a character's emotional state and personal history affects the way the view looks, the way tones sound, the memories that smells evoke. We may write dialogue, but neglect to reveal the physical tells or intruding thoughts that communicate more than spoken words alone. Or, we may dart from action to action, instead of pausing to drive home the impact of each action.
When I see the scene as a fan, I envision unfolding its inner life, exposing things I didn’t know were there, revealing what’s under the surface. Closed, it simply looks like red-and-gold paper, but open it up and...ooh, look at the white crane hidden inside! The fan reveals layers, and so does the scene, opening opportunities for surprise.
Here’s my favorite part of the fan metaphor: fans are fun! I've seen writers young and old respond to this idea.
I recently taught an elementary school workshop in which we used construction paper folded into fans. (In truth, they looked more like window shades.) Each sheet yielded about five creases, or ten folds—twenty if you count the back. I asked the children to write five lines from their stories-in-progress into every other fold, leaving the folds in between blank.
Then I asked them to write a new sentence into each blank fold, one that offered more detail about what happened in the previous sentence. The goal was to read all ten sentences in order and have them make sense as a scene.
Some kids grasped the idea, opening up the story with new sentences. Others simply rewrote the sentences they had already written. Either interpretation was fine, because they all expanded their scenes with more details.
That same week, while giving a talk to parents on the subject of creativity, I had them try a variation of the fan exercise. They wrote a flash-fiction story on every other line. Then they added sentences in between. Afterward, several looked up in surprised delight, and a couple of them said, “This really is a better story!”
The folds do more than you might think, because you cannot get away with simply making the scene longer. Instead, the new information must illuminate what’s already there. Otherwise it won’t flow with the rest of the story.
There are many possible variations on the fan exercise, such as: 1) write dialogue on every other line, and then add physical tells or internal monologue in between, 2) tell a group story in which each person contributes one line, or 3) create a fictional correspondence between two people à la Lisa See.
I’m preparing for a summer writing camp at Lighthouse, and my fellow instructor and I want to order either white folding fans or a fan-making kit. I love writing on objects that have another purpose, such as paper cups, cereal boxes, or even airline barf bags. (Those are fun for letters because you can tuck in the tabs to create a self-contained envelope.) I believe when we take writing into a three-dimensional space we open ourselves and our stories to reveal more than we first imagined.
|Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.|