Monday, May 31, 2010

From Scene to Shining Scene

Happy Memorial Day, especially to those who have served our great nation in the military to protect our liberty. God bless you all.
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Scenes are the building blocks of fiction. No matter the tense or point of view, nothing puts a reader into the story like a good scene. Sandra Scofield, in The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer says, "The scene is the most vivid and immediate part of the story." She's right, of course. Scenes are what draw the reader into the circle of activity, connecting him or her to the characters and plot of a novel in a way the finest narrative can't do. Each has a purpose, and the purpose of a scene is to grab the reader by her pearls and pull her into the action.
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A scene may contain description, dialogue and/or internal thought in any combination, but what it must have is action. Scofield writes, "All too often, the apprentice fiction writer gets caught up in the thoughts of characters and forgets to make something happen in a scene. The writer forgets that actions cause reactions." Avoid talking heads in your fiction. Flesh out your characters, show us what they're doing while they're delivering their lines. But don't give them something to do just for the sake of activity. Give us action beats to go with the dialogue, but make those beats count for something. Make every line and every action important to the story. Don't waste an opportunity to show us what the character is thinking, feeling, wanting, by the things she does in any given conversation or span of silence. Make her actions speak louder than her words. Contradict them, even. For example, consider:
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"I'm going out," she said to Martin. "I won't be long." She ran her finger over her grocery list to make sure she'd not forgotten anything.
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"I'm going out," she said to Martin. "I won't be long." She twisted her wedding band round and round her finger, then tugged it off and slipped it in her pocket.
The characters and dialogue are exactly the same, but the actions tell two entirely different stories.
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Think of scenes as vignettes in your story. To be effective, your vignette needs a beginning, middle and end. It should be self-contained, or it leaves the observer hanging, confused. That's not to say that each scene you write needs to answer every immediate question. On the contrary, delayed information is what keeps the reader turning the page, no matter the genre. TMI certainly applies here. Give it in doses, when absolutely necessary, to keep taut the line between you and your reader. That's what tension in fiction is all about. And tension "is caused when a question is raised and the reader's sense of anticipation is heightened." Again, this is from Sandra Scofield's primer, which I've added to our Resources page, and highly recommend, no matter how long you've been writing.
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Scenes are where you, as writer or reader, find yourself present in the telling of a story. You connect with one character or another and suddenly you have a stake in the game. What happens to these people matters now. Here's one of my favorite scenes from Katy Popa's To Dance in the Desert:
"What you need are lighter clothes," said Una, fingering the long polyester sleeve of Sophie's blouse.
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It was one of two blouses she'd worn on alternate days since she'd first shown up at the Studmuffin. She'd pushed her sleeves up, but they were just too tight to push far.
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"I didn't bring many clothes with me," she said.
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"Well, come on then." Una stood. "Let's go see what I've got that'll fit you."
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Sophie held back. Her eyes scanned Una's outfit, and Dara resisted a chuckle.
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"Some of my clothes are quite ordinary," said Una. "Aren't they, Amy?"
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"Just the ones you don't wear, Gram."
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"Well, there you go, then."
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Amy's place had the haphazard charm of a home furnished with yard-sale finds, but Una's piece of it left nothing to chance. The bed was covered in moss velvet to match the draperies. The headboard, dresser, and tables were all carved mahogany with flashes of gold touched to the rosebuds. She had an actual dressing table skirted in the same gold chiffon that filtered light between the drapes.
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And by her bed was a crystal vase with a single white silk lily.
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Una opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a sleeveless shell, soft blue. "This should do the trick," she said. "It's really too big in the top for me. I used to be bigger, but ..." She waved her hands around her two cleavages. "One too many trips to the knocker press!"
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"It's what she calls a mammogram." Amy smiled.
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Sophie chuckled, just a little.
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"It's a better name," said Ivy, settling into the green brocade reading chair.
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Una shook her head. "Take a warning from me, girls. You can't put these things through the pasta press and expect them to bounce back every time. One day they just give out, and what have you got but cooked lasagna to stuff in your brassiere?"
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Jane sat on the bed. "I once heard of a woman who yanked herself out of the wicked contraption too quickly, and they curled up just like gift ribbon."
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"Well, that would keep them off your knees, at least," said Una.
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Sweet little Amy grinned like she'd hoped exactly this would happen.
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Sophie had started laughing--holding her hand up, still hiding her teeth, but she was audibly laughing.
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Dara caught her eye, and the two burst out in a mutual snort. Then Jane and Una snorted, and Ivy and Amy, and they had themselves a pig party right there in Una's boudoir.
There's more, but even this part of the scene is self-contained, not a word or action wasted, right down to Katy's choice of boudoir for Una's bedroom. That alone tells us something about the character. Can't you picture yourself there with these women, jumping into the conversation?
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Here's an exercise for you. Observe someone whose path you cross today in your activities. It may be someone you notice behind the wheel at a stop light, someone hurrying into an office building, or peering into a mailbox. Create a complete scene, with beginning, middle and end, using one set of action beats. Then change the initial action beat and rewrite the scene. See what a difference it makes.
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On Wednesday we're pleased to present some observations about staging the scene by Arthur Plotnik, renowned author of Spunk & Bite: An Author's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style. You won't want to miss this.

5 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Oh, I should have a lot of people to choose from. Headed to a parade down the street in a bit.

Still laughing about the cooked lasagna!

Happy Memorial Day!
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

The exercise will be interesting, Sharon. It's counterintuitive for the writer to see someone (in a car, running down the street, etc.) and not construct an entire short story complete with backstory, and a rudimentary character sketch.

To write it as a scene, something self contained yet belonging to a greater whole (a chapter, a novel) is a wonderful challenge! Thanks for this!

Jan Cline said...

Love that exercise. Im going to use it for my next writers group meeting. Thank you for the examples - I always grow a lot from reading this blog!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Wendy, enjoy the parade. If you haven't read To Dance in the Desert, you'd really enjoy it.

Jan, thanks for stopping by on a holiday. Let me know how the exercise goes in your writers group.

Bonnie, thanks for your encouragement. Mwah.

Latayne C Scott said...

That is a great exercise, Sharon. Very insightful.

Your post made me consider that the best writing shows a seamless integration of these elements in a scene. In other words, the characters' actions are harmonious with all we know of them (or what the author knows we need to know of them and will eventually vindicate) as well as harmonious with the dialogue -- even if the words seem to contradict the actions. (Did that make sense?)