What does the term “scene” mean to you? Your writing technique may depend on your definition.
First of all, a scene is the place where the action occurs, as in “the police returned to the scene of the crime.” People who see scene this way are likely to focus on the intersection of place and event: not just Broadway and 32nd Street, but the outskirts of Little Korea, with its wholesale fabric stores and Korean barbecue restaurants—and the chalked outline of a body that fell (or was pushed?) from the third-floor scaffolding.
Second, scene is an incident, as in “their parting was a sad scene,” with Jinny crying so hard, she salted Fred’s nose when she kissed him goodbye—the third time in as many minutes—until finally he had to push her away. Writers who see scene this way understand the importance of making something happen, not just having characters engage in idle rumination.
A third, more limited aspect of scene is the view, strictly the visual aspect of an area, perhaps with an eye toward beauty: “Frog Falls is the most scenic spot on Nell’s Island. Note the way the water drops 30 meters from the stone ledge, granite carved over centuries into the shape of a toad’s lips.” Focus on what the reader can see, as in a film.
Speaking of film: A scene is also a consecutive series of pictures that constitutes a unit of action in a film, and you can think of your presentation that way: no authorial rumination or comments. Or, as Christopher Isherwood wrote in his short novel Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” In an earlier, pre-cinematic era, a scene was merely a subdivision of an act in a play, as in “the first act has three scenes”—in which case, dramatize. Give us dialogue and movement.
The reader also wants emotion, and it’s worthwhile remembering that a scene can also be a fit or a display of bad temper, as in “he made a scene.” You want us to pay attention to your snotty protagonist, who’s not getting good service at the café? Have her throw a tantrum.
Finally, a scene may just convey the daily texture of existence in a place, as in “he painted scenes from everyday life.” Think of the small-town scenes that Sherwood Anderson presents in his classic short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio: idiosyncratic characters passing time in shops and offices, houses and fields, each story conveying a life lived.
Because that, after all, is how our lives progress: in scenes, in swatches of dialogue against a moving backdrop, in little and big moments of drama seamlessly stitched together by time. When one scene ends, another begins, sometimes overlapping on a particularly busy day. Scenes have shape, even when they’re grotesque. They have color and sound and convey meaning, even if that significance isn’t apparent at first. They’re your building blocks for vibrant fiction. In the next column, we’ll talk about ways to rig them up.
David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at
Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a
dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.