Making a scene
Published: July 1, 2005
|In my August 2005 article on how to write scenes in fiction, I summarized the essential ingredients of a well-executed scene. Here is a recap of those ingredients, followed by my analysis of a scene by William Faulkner. At the end, I provide a writing exercise that makes you take a closer look at your own scenes.|
Let's summarize what a scene should give us:
Setting. Give us basic information about where we are, when the action is taking place in relation to earlier events, and who is taking part.
News. Deliver new information we care about. For example, a character might reveal a secret: "Aunt Tilly had dozens of lovers; didn't you know?"
Action. Advance the action in meaningful ways. Why don't we follow a character through an entire work day? Because most work is boring. That's why we're paid to do it. If we see a character at work, it should be because he/she is stealing files, has overheard something, gotten fired, etc. Give us only the critical moments.
Conflict. Keep raising the stakes of the main conflict--I make this a separate point to emphasize that scenes shouldn't just be circus acts, where the stunts become increasingly death-defying but don't build to a climax, as in, "Look at this great action scene! Now … you won't believe your eyes in this next one!" Action can't be all flash and no build. Conflict is driven by characters' desires. It is the flammable glue that holds everything together and simultaneously threatens to blow it apart. Each scene should advance the conflict by making things tougher on the characters so we keep wondering how they're going to get through it. This is true for the most intimate love story as well as the scariest action adventure.
Setup. Leave us knowing more and wanting more (except after the story's climax, where, it is hoped, we are both surprised by the ending and yet satisfied, happy ending or not). The meaningful action and new information delivered in every scene should allow us to know the characters better and care about what happens to them next.
Scene ingredients applied
Let's look at a brief scene from one of William Faulkner's best-read short stories, "A Rose for Emily," about a woman who holds a town's fascination all through her life, and even after her death.
She carried her head high enough--even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity. … Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say "Poor Emily," and while two female cousins were visiting her.
"I want some poison," she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eye sockets as you would imagine a lighthouse keeper's face ought to look. "I want some poison," she said.
"Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I'd recom--"
"I want the best you have. I don't care what kind."
The druggist named several. "They'll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want is--"
"Arsenic," Miss Emily said. "Is that a good one?"
"Is … arsenic? Yes, ma'am. But what you want--"
"I want arsenic."
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face like a strained flag. "Why, of course," the druggist said. "If that's what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for."
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went to get the arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the druggist didn't come back. When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: "For rats."
The overall setting of the story--the town--has already been provided. In the first line of dialog, though, we know that Miss Emily is in the pharmacy, and we know exactly what she wants.
By the time she repeats her request, we know how old she is in this scene, how she's aging, and how she carries herself--all good character insights and setting info.
The news part of the scene is not just that she buys poison, but how she asks for it, with no pretense, and the fact that she demands it twice, refusing to even make up an explanation. Very intriguing.
The action is conveyed in the dialog itself, how she cuts off the druggist's every sentence, and how we see him move from deferential helpfulness to suspicion that he won't voice, but displays in how he chooses not to return to the counter to hand over the package himself.
That gesture is also the essence of the conflict of the scene: He suspects, as we do, that Emily is up to no good with buying this poison, but she's such a formidable figure (and holds such standing in the town) that the druggist can't directly refuse her. Instead, he chooses not to face her; his one line in the sand is to label the package.
And of course, Miss Emily's defiant silence when asked about the poison just makes us want to know all the more what she is planning. It's a chilling setup for things to come.
No time limit.
Map the scenes in an in-progress story, novel, play or screenplay. You don't need a complete draft.
Define where scenes begin and end in your manuscript by marking a line at the "top" and the "bottom" of each scene.
For stories and novels, skip long sections of narration or summary, usually reserved for providing background information or letting us (briefly) observe a narrator in his or her natural habitat as she goes from one significant development to another.
If the narrator is observing something in real time important to the story--i.e., a husband sees his wife opening the door of their house to another man and embracing her--that is a scene, even though the husband might not say anything.
Using one index card per scene, note the setting and characters. Then write what happens. Get it down to bare bones: "Jodie and Kathy rob a convenience store. Jodie accidentally shoots Kathy."
You'll begin to see which scenes are necessary to advancing the story and which aren't. You might also discover what scenes you're missing to complete the story.