Scaffolding, or What Writers Can Learn From the Construction Industry with R.J. Davnall

I’m pleased to introduce a very talented writer to everyone. R.J Davnall is the author of the epic paranormal fantasy series ‘Second Realm.’ The first four episodes are available as a collected novella entitled, ‘Van Raighan’s Last Stand‘.

Van Raighan's Last Stand

Van Raighan’s Last Stand

Scaffolding, or What Writers Can Learn From the Construction Industry

I’d characterise myself as an intuitive writer. Not that I’m possessed of some magical writing intuition, but I do allow a kind of intuition to play a big part in my writing. The intuition in question is for characterisation and character voice. When I’m writing perspectives limited to a single character (which is most of the time), I do my best to get into the character’s head and just let them flow through my fingers onto the page.

I take the view that anything that goes through a character’s head can go on the page initially, but you have to be quite selective about what makes it into the final draft. A lot of things go through your character’s head that no-one wants to hear about. But some of those things are essential parts of the character’s thought process, things they subconsciously understand or know that affect their whole attitude.

I call these ‘scaffolding’. It’s something you’ve got to put up in order to be able to put up a good building (particularly one that looks pretty from the outside), but you want to make sure to take it down once you’re done.

Extensive scaffolding on a building undergoing renovation; 4th Street in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
Photo shot by Mike Hunt (Tysto), 2005-August-24

Scaffolding sentences are attitude or assumption sentences. Quite often they tell something you should be showing. That’s OK, because they’re there to tell you, the author, that there’s something you need to show. Putting the scaffold in helps you maintain the flow of your intuition – if you like, helps you keep running the simulation of the character in your head.

Here’s an example from the first draft of a short story I published recently, ‘Touching the Void’:

Taslin spoke, in a voice smooth with the assurance of experience. “In truth, Rel’s right. I was taught that it’s good manners to laugh when humans do.” The Wilder’s insincere support was the last thing he wanted.

Rel couldn’t help himself. “Not always.”

Spot the scaffolding? It’s this sentence:

The Wilder’s insincere support was the last thing he wanted.

In some ways, this example is obvious: the sentence is obviously a ‘tell’, and Rel’s automatic clipped response ‘Not always’ show very nicely how unhappy he is about Taslin’s support. But putting in the grouchy ‘that’s the last thing I want!’ sentence kept me in the right grouchy frame of mind to be able to work out how to make Rel’s response appropriately grouchy.

So what’s the difference between scaffolding and just plain telling instead of showing? Scaffolding is one level better than plain telling. Here’s the same sentence as a (really clunky) tell:

Rel’s sullen anger meant the Wilder’s insincere support was the last thing he wanted.

The difference is this: some of the things in that version of the sentence aren’t things that go through Rel’s head at all. He doesn’t think, consciously or subconsciously, ‘My sullen anger is making me resent Taslin’s support’; if he did, he’d react differently, and probably less childishly. If I’d written that sentence in my first draft, I’d have been breaking with the character.

That’s how scaffolding works as a writing technique. Obviously, it’s not going to suit everyone, though I think the chances are if you’ve ever gotten lost in a character while writing, you’ve put in some scaffolding while doing so. The first lesson to take away from this, then, is how to spot scaffolding, because it’s rare that you want to leave it in place.

Scaffolding tends to consist of sentences that express directly the feeling underlying the character’s next action as the character feels it. This means that they can slip through because they don’t feel like ‘tells’; it also means that the odd one here and there won’t matter, but it’s still going to be more immersive to let the reader work it out for him- or herself.

That’s probably as much as I can explain about how to spot scaffolding when you’re editing. It’s much harder to give advice about how to use scaffolding as a technique when you’re writing your first drafts. Like anything to do with instinctive writing, if you’re concentrating on it, you’re doing it wrong. Equally, though, like most techniques, it can become instinctive with practice, and you may be doing it already (if you are, don’t stop to check. Oh, wait…)

One thing I’m experimenting with at the moment is using scaffolding as a late-stage outlining technique (yes, despite claiming to be an ‘intuitive’ writer, I outline heavily. There isn’t time here to explain why I think that isn’t total nonsense). In this, once I’ve broken down my overall outline into individual scenes, I go through each scene and put in the scaffolding I think I’ll need before filling in the writing.

Think of it like building a skyscraper; you put up the steel frame of the building first (the outline). Then you cover it in scaffolding (the sca- oh, you got that one, right). Then you use the scaffolding to get to where you want to put bricks, windows and whatever else they build skyscrapers out of (the actual writing).

It’s possible I’m enjoying this metaphor too much. I’ll stop now.

R.J. Davnall

R. J. Davnall has been telling stories all his life, and thus probably shouldn’t be trusted to write his own bio. Besides writing, he’s currently trying to prove that the physical world is an illusion (in order to earn his PhD in philosophy). Penny Lane is in his ears and eyes, and frequently on his brain, which is the price he pays for living on one of the most famous streets in the world. He plays piano and Minecraft, and occasionally remembers to eat and sleep.

Twitter: @eatthepen

2 thoughts on “Scaffolding, or What Writers Can Learn From the Construction Industry with R.J. Davnall

  1. Oh, thank you for this. It was a wonderful post, and it reminds me of the metaphor that writing a novel is like building a house; thanks to the imagery of the scaffolding, I feel like I understand that metaphor better now.

    The thing is, though, I feel like you really have to understand how a house is built to understand that metaphor. And you forgot the foundation. Thats an important part of the metaphor too.

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