I have a friend who writes screenplays as well as novels, and he doesn’t start a story until he’s blocked out each scene, sometimes on a storyboard: Who’s talking or doing what to whom, and for how long? Let’s consider what a scene is—as opposed to a mere plot event, a character sketch or a rumination.
First of all, a scene contains drama, rather than just description. The term drama is from the Greek dran—to do, act or perform. The performance can be heroic: a lifesaving boost out the window in the middle of a two-alarm fire. It can also be on the quieter side: a ritual in which your 5-year-old protagonist in 1934 solemnly deposits a daily penny in a ceramic pig.
The action may involve dialogue, reflection and reaction: The man cries “Thank you!” and hugs the woman firefighter who saved him. The boy reflects that, at this rate, it’ll take him five more months to buy the model-car kit. He moodily kicks the wall, and his father tells him to cut that out. Make the scene revealing, or what’s the point? Notice that the firefighter blushes furiously, that the piggy bank has a hole in the bottom.
Your scene should move through time and space, not to say that it must be an action sequence, but it ought to have physicality and duration, something begun and completed. Maybe stage a confrontation, something broached if not resolved, and consequences. A good scene, like a mini-plot, should also have some tension. That burn victim is going to marry the firefighter, and this first scene is just to jump-start the romance. But don’t wait for the kid to buy that model car. His father’s going to “borrow” the money for a fifth of Golden Wedding.
But enough preamble. Time for a demonstration:
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.
“I never did see the beat of that boy!”
She went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the tomato vines and “jimpson” weeds that constituted the garden. No Tom. So she lifted up her voice at an angle calculated for distance and shouted:
There was a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight.
In fact, that’s not quite the end of the scene. The two of them talk, and the boy takes flight again. But let’s hope that the opening of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at least piqued your interest.
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.