Journeys of the Heart

An author's journey

Drop Anchor!

I noticed something recently, first in my spring novel writing course and then again at a critique session at the writer’s retreat I attended in early May.   Since it cropped up more than once, I think it deserves mentioning.  The scenes I was reading had fascinating hooks, snappy dialog and engaging characters.  But something was missing.  They were all lost in space.  Despite all the positive attributes, it was a struggle for the reader (me) to figure out where or when the scene was taking place.  In writing terms, the scenes needed to be anchored. 

I became aware of how vital anchoring is when I attended a workshop by Alexandra Sokoloff.  After years as a successful Hollywood script writer, she changed direction and turned to writing thrillers.  Her earlier years writing for TV and movies weren’t wasted.   She shared a lot of writing tips she learned as a script writer that now help her to craft her novels.  One of them is to make sure each and every scene in your novel is anchored.  Anchoring is akin to the establishing shot film directors use to let viewers know when and where the action on the screen is taking place.  Often it is an outside shot that moves inside or a distance shot that moves closer to the action.   Sometimes text is added, such as: two hours earlier or 1 week ago to further clarify the time of the action. 

Writers need to do the same thing when starting a new scene, without the benefit of a camera to do the work for them.  The trick is to do it smoothly without interrupting the pacing and without allowing too much description to creep in.   There are several ways this can be accomplished. 

  1. Use a date/place line like they do in movies and on TV.  Something like: New York City, 1898 or Philadelphia-July 4, 1776-12:00 noon.  Datelines work well in thrillers to show how the clock is ticking.  Jonathan Maberry uses this technique to great effect in his most recent novel, Dragon Factory.  An extinction clock is set at the opening of the novel and as each scene progresses the tension builds as the clock ticks down to the zero hour.  The TV show Fringe uses this same device to good effect.
  2. Tell the reader in the first 1-2 sentences where the scene is set.  In Dan Brown’s, The Lost Symbol, Chapter One starts with the sentence—the Otis elevator climbing the south pillar of the Eiffel Tower was overflowing with tourists.  Clean and simple and no room for confusion in the reader’s mind about where the action is located.
  3. If starting with dialog weave 1-3 sentences into the narrative portion to ground the scene as soon as possible.  Again, using Dragon Factory as an example, Maberry first uses a date line at the top of the page.  He plunges into the story with dialog and action showing Joe Ledger right in the middle of being accosted by four government agents of the NSA.  He then anchors the scene again by the use of 1 sentence — “We were in the parking lot of Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore.” Adding a few more sentences he makes it perfectly clear to the reader where and when and even why he is at this particular place. 

Learning to do this with the ease and craftsmanship of a popular author may take some practice.  After taking Sokoloff’s workshop I began to pay particular attention to how different authors anchored their scenes.  Try it your self with the book you’re reading now.  And the next time you begin a scene, don’t let it drift away—toss that anchor overboard.


May 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments