This hasn’t been a great week for writing, in the strict sense of “sit down, write your actual coherent scenes and your characters interacting,” but it’s been really great for scene snapshots.
It’s not a technical term. The scene snapshot is what I call those moments where you’re doing something else — household chores, sitting on the bus, browsing the internet, listening to music — and you get the flash of a scene. Maybe it’s just a wide visual shot, like what happens in movies. Sometimes it’s a character, a face and/or a name. It could be two characters and a snip of dialogue or interaction. Once in a while it’s just a tagline, and I love those because I generally struggle a lot in trying to figure out a snappy way to summarize my stories. Occasionally they come connected with others, which is when I usually start trying to build something out of the pieces.
For me these scenes always quite vivid. It feels like I was dropped into something partway. Not even in medias res the way a story might be deliberately shaped, but like you walked into a movie or TV show partway through something.
These scenes are never connected directly to anything, not as they first appear. They just exist as they are, and it’s up to me to puzzle out a larger context or setting if I want to go forward. Who is the young man with a scarred face staring longingly up at the rainy gray sky? Why is that girl with a wolf’s hind legs so pleased with herself, tucked away in the back corner of a dark bar?
I don’t know yet.* But that’s part of the process. Maybe this is just how inspiration works.
* (Except I do for these examples, because these are two of the oldest characters I ever developed. I haven’t actually written their stories yet — but they’ve been kicking around in the back of my mind for nearly two decades now, waiting for the opportunity. Someday soon, I hope I can do something for them.)
On the other hand, there are a lot — a LOT — of these scene snapshots that come and go and I don’t try to pursue. Most are pretty self-indulgent to embarrassing degrees. And while fiction writing is an industry that generally expects you to pick a niche and stick with it if you mean to be successful, for me, at least, there’s also a desire for some self-indulgence as well — writing because you want to tell this story, because this is a topic that interests you, because this is something that you want to explore in the safety net of fiction.
But even then there are scene snapshots that I have to file away as “I’m not sure what to do with this,” or “I like it, but boy am I embarrassed to put this anywhere.” Some of them echo back to my teenage love of intense melodrama (the fantasy of the rest of the cast realizing how much they’ve wronged a good long-suffering friend, mmhmm) and some of them are just too esoteric for me to even want to figure out. There are certainly some writers who’ve made enviable careers of tapping into that love of melodrama! I just don’t think I could manage it. I’d be too embarrassed of my work, and that seems like a pretty poor way for a writer — or any kind of creator — to live.
Also, in all honesty, as satisfying as a scene snapshot of someone groveling for forgiveness after wronging someone else can be, I feel like it’d be incredibly irritating for anyone else to have to consume. Yesterday my roommates and I went to the mall, and in one particular store every single song was some variation of “I know I wronged you but please love me again,” which got old really fast.
If I’m going to flesh out one of these scene snapshots into something more, I want it to be something that I wouldn’t mind reading myself. I’d like to do justice to those little snapshots that come to me that feel like they want to be part of a bigger story. Even if I can’t do something like that right away — see those characters (and their related casts) I mentioned above — I at least have a framework kicking around. I’ve got something that I can come back to at a later date, ready and waiting.
At this particular moment I’m working mostly on doing a first-read edit pass of a thing I finished back in early 2016 or thereabouts, so I can’t really focus too hard on starting new things, but at least I’ll know that they’re ready, whenever I can get to them.