In which we make a scene

So last Wednesday, when the story revisions for the spring writing workshop started coming in, I had one of those uh oh moments as I realised, too late, that over the last six weeks' teaching I'd missed out something fundamental: scenes. I never really explained what a scene is, or how you go about writing one-- not directly, anyway. In my experience, beginning writers produce better material more quickly when they're set specific parameters, and encouraged to focus on small moments rather than big ones. So when I talk about scenes, it's in terms of choosing specific moments upon which to focus, then sequencing those moments in fine detail; I say, think small, take your time, stay in the narrative present. It's a movie, you're the camera. Take it frame by frame: write exactly what you see and hear as it happens, in as much concrete detail as you can.

The idea is that it's much simpler, not to mention much less daunting, to imagine your way through small moments and to string them together than it is to sit down and Write a Scene-- though in either case we're really talking about the same thing. The former approach breaks things into manageable elements; you trick your brain into paying attention to what's actually happening on the page as opposed to what you would like to be on the page. The latter suggests an unfocused attack, throwing words on the page in an attempt to hammer one's "vision" onto it. That approach can certainly result in something which looks like a scene, and which may even adhere to that vague formula for scene structure you sometimes find in fiction writing how-tos (to grossly oversimplify it, it goes something like 1) setting/conflict establishment, 2) event, and 3) outcome). When I teach scene writing, though, I prefer that workshoppers avoid being sidetracked by formulas or vision. My goal is to get everyone to step back a bit, lighten their grip on the story, and focus on the page itself-- word by word, moment by moment.

Sometimes it works. This time it didn't, and I think it may be down to the fact that I never really gave the group a definition for scene in the first place. I mean, heck, I take scenes for granted. I know what they are, I know how they go. I'm pathologically obsessed with causes and consequences; they play out in my head in eye-watering bullet time. As far as I'm concerned, scenes happen all around us, at every moment. They're like Lego bricks. Pick them up, stick them together: voilĂ , it's a miniature Fallingwater. Easy, yeah?

Well, no. Scene writing isn't intuitive, until you learn to think frame-by-frame. That's something a writer develops a feel for over time. Even in a guided environment like a workshop, it takes most people a while to mentally shift gears; once they do, they frequently don't even realise what's happened, and seem unable see through their own expectations to what they've actually accomplished. (I can't tell you how many times I've praised a writer's in-class efforts only to have that writer give me a look like I'm nuts.)

You've got to start with some kind of definition. That's the point. You'll indulge me, won't you, if I attempt to make one? Hell, you've read this far. May as well commit.

So what on earth is a scene?

1. A scene is a series of actions, reactions, causes, and consequences which leads inexorably to the thing that happens next.

Scenes aren't just puppet shows, with characters moving around and saying stuff until some grand revelation occurs, or the next scene starts. Every scene in a story, no matter how small, is linked to what's come before, and what follows-- genesis and fallout. That doesn't necessarily mean every scene in a story has to contain some moment of high drama or excitement, but it does mean that every scene needs to be about something, and that each one drives the story along in some way. A scene needs a focal point, and every element of the scene must gravitate toward it.

Many beginning writers have a tendency, at first, to chuck every last morsel of information they can think of into a scene rather than finding a focal point. Usually it's the result of consciously trying to satisfy general conventions of fiction writing-- be descriptive, be consistent, hook your reader, pace the action, etc.-- rather than thinking about the causes and consequences which drive the scene. In the effort to make it all seem like sense, the writer may turn her attention to the chronology of events, rather than the whys and hows, and you'll end up with something like this:
Bob and Moira found a parking space, a precious commodity all over Big City but particularly in the bustling, ethnic neighborhood of Northwest Easterville, with its popular nightclubs, tapas bars, and rustic open-air markets. They walked two blocks to the Phat Eats diner, the neighborhood's newest eatery which featured hearty fare made with local ingredients, and entered the establishment. The place was very busy inside, but promised good times and adventurous eating, if the crowded counter, the delicious smells coming from the open kitchen, and the laughter from other diners was anything to judge by.

Bob and Moira took off their coats and waited. After standing by the cash register for several minutes they finally caught the eye of one of the waitresses, a slim, blond woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a name tag that said Maggie. Maggie led them to a booth at the rear of the building, near the restrooms, and gave each of them a menu. "Can I get you something to drink?" Maggie asked. Bob ordered a Coke, and Moira said she'd be fine with water. "Okay, I'll be right back," Maggie said, and went behind the counter to the soda fountain. As she filled their glasses, Bob and Moira looked over their menus in silence.

"Are the hamburgers good here?" Moira asked.

"The Big Beef Special is the best burger in town. I should know. I've been coming here since I was a kid," Bob replied. "But what they're really famous for is their shrimp remoulade. No other diner in town serves it."

"Oh, I'll try that, then," said Moira, brightening. "I haven't eaten shellfish since that diving accident ten years ago."

"Good choice!" Bob exclaimed. "The shrimp are extra chewy. You can give your new jaw a real test-drive!" And they continued making small talk until Maggie came back with their drinks.

"One Coke and one water," said Maggie, coming back to the table. "Now, what would you like?"

"I'll have the shrimp," Moira blurted. "Make it a double order of shrimp. And extra sauce on the side. Let's push out the boat!"

Bob smiled. "Make that two orders of shrimp," he said, and, winking, added, "leave the legs on mine."

Obviously, this scene isn't all that engaging, or vivid. Nothing's really happening to advance the story, or to reveal anything about the characters and their relationship to each other-- even in spite of the fact that I've managed to crowbar some overt exposition into the dialogue. It's certainly possible that there's some sort of story going on, somewhere off the page. But it's not happening here. The scene lacks focus, and a purpose; it wanders aimlessly, relying heavily on the setting and the dialogue to make something, anything, happen (which, of course, neither does).

If I want to improve my scene, the first thing I need to do is find a focal point-- in other words, I need to identify the most significant development in the scene, and write toward it, weeding out all the stuff which has nothing to do with that event as I go. I'm going to say the significant event in this scene is probably Moira ordering shrimp for the first time in ten years; it seems like a big step for her, what with the diving accident and all; it's the point at which events may at last turn interesting. Part of my task, then, will be to establish some conflict which can plausibly result in that event. Causes, consequences; actions, reactions.
The Phat Eats diner was very busy inside, but looked promising, if the crowded counter, the delicious smells coming from the open kitchen, and the laughter from other diners was anything to judge by. Bob and Moira took off their coats and waited by the cash register until one of the waitresses-- a slim, blond woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a name tag that said Maggie-- led them to a booth at the rear of the building, near the restrooms. They looked over the menu in silence. There was a lot of seafood on it. Moira frowned.

"Are the hamburgers good here?" she ventured.

"The Big Beef Special is good," Bob replied. "But what they're really famous for is the shrimp remoulade. No other diner in town serves it."

Moira hesitated. "You know I haven't eaten shellfish since that diving accident ten years ago."

"Yeah, I know," Bob said. "Don't you think it's time to give that new jaw a real test-drive? The shrimp are extra chewy."

Moira stared at Bob.

"One Coke and one water," said Maggie, returning to their table and setting their drinks in front of them. "Now, what would you like?"

"She'll have the shrimp," Bob blurted, before Moira could speak. "Make it a double order of shrimp. And extra sauce on the side. Let's push out the boat! And," he added, winking, "leave the legs on 'em."

That's a little better: my scene now has a purpose and makes a beeline for it. Additionally, there's a conflict: we learn by implication that Bob and Moira's relationship may not be in good shape-- Bob's kind of pushy, isn't he? Note that I chose to drop the tone of adventuresome cheer from the original version: the accident, whatever it was, and its repercussions weigh too heavily on the scene to be ignored. Otherwise it's just silly.

Even so, the scene needs work; it's still not as vivid as it might be. Moira and Bob and pretty much talking heads at this point; they don't do much in response to each other, and despite my attempts to set the scene in the first paragraph, the setting as it exists in my head still isn't on the page. (Did you realise, for example. that the booths in the diner are wooden, with seats made from old, cut-down church pews? No? You mean to say you're not telepathic?)

Which brings us to definition two:

2. A scene is an immediate moment of specific action, not a generalized accounting of the action.

The amount of information written into a scene isn't as crucial as the amount of specific detail it provides. That means named objects, colors, sounds, movements; all the things a reader could see, feel, touch and hear if they were actually there. It's common for beginning writers to mistake writing like that in the first version of my scene for vivid, detailed prose, because it contains an abundance of general information. The first version of the scene mentions things like "rustic open-air markets" and "delicious smells"; each phrase is suggestive in its way, perhaps, but each is also general, and vague, rather than specific, and concrete. Most of us can guess at what an open-air market is, but what exactly makes one "rustic"? What does a rustic market sell, compared to a regular one? What does it look like? What are the sellers like? Similarly, each of us has a different idea about what makes a smell "delicious". What's so delicious about the smells in the diner? What are the smells? Are those smells somehow different from the regular grease smells that go with diners, or is it just that Moira and Bob are hungry? And so on.

Overwhelming the reader with lots of non-specific information is not the same thing as writing vivid, descriptive prose. A lack of specific detail doesn't just force the reader to fill in the gaps, but assumes that the reader's knowledge and attitudes mirror the writer's precisely-- that everyone will draw the same conclusions, laughing or crying as the writer laughs or cries, sighing with pleasure or cringing in revulsion when the writer does. As Ursula Le Guin remarks in Steering the Craft (and a point with which I wholly agree), that's a very childish assumption to make, not to mention a lazy way to write. It's like painting a canvas a uniform blue, then claiming it's meant to be the Pacific Ocean. Sure, the Pacific Ocean's probably that shade of blue, somewhere, but where? How far down? Is it an empty place, or teeming with life? Is there danger there? Am I drowning? Swimming? And can I reasonably say that one portion of the picture represents the water, and another the sky? Because that would change the focus of the work.*

The main job of a scene is not to be evocative; it is to be present. To improve upon something I said in another post: think of the reader standing in the middle of a blank white room. You could hang a picture on the wall in front of him, but that wouldn't put him in the picture. You could, however, paint the picture all around him-- on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling. You might even say that

3. A scene is a three-dimensional space which the reader inhabits, via the narrator.

In the final version of my scene, then, I need to work at making the scene a real place and time-- and not just in terms of physical description. This is one of those points where it becomes important to consider the point of view from which I narrate. Currently, I'm using an anonymous narrator, and a very straightforward, reportorial style. That's really not the best perspective from which to tell the story; it would help to be able to slip inside one character or the other, preferably the one who seems most important in the scene.

That leaves Maggie out; she's more set dressing than anything. Bob's a possibility, but he might not be the best choice for a point of view character, either. Part of the conflict in the scene comes from the fact that Bob's callousness (or seeming callousness-- hard to say which) is unexpected; if we could see into his thoughts, we'd know it was coming. That would make him a difficult protagonist to relate to, and it would take some of the bite out of what he says. Bob's actions in this scene should come as much of a surprise to the reader as they do to Moira. Maybe, then, Moira's perspective is the best to choose-- and since the main event has to do with a decision she'll have to make, it's fair to say that it's really her scene anyway. So Moira it is.

St. Anne's still looked like a church on the inside, even though they'd gutted the place to build the cafe. It still had its vaulted wooden ceiling, and it looked like several of the old oak pews had been reclaimed and cut down to make seats. The party of middle-aged women crammed into the booth nearest the door cackled over their margaritas and nachos but sat ramrod straight, three a side, like good Catholics, against the high backs of their benches. Moira couldn't see whether the kneelers were still attached.

"Bob, I don't know," Moira said. "Can we get tapas instead?"

"Come on Moira." He raised his arm over his head and-- Moira winced-- snapped his fingers. Click, click, click-click. A waitress at the other end of the long diner counter looked up, nodded. "Two, please," Bob shouted, and the waitress held up a finger.

"This place is great," Bob said, grinning. He pointed to the line cook working at a fat, marble-topped table behind the counter, with his back to the room. "Look at that guy."

Moira felt certain the table must be the very altar she remembered. It was about the same size, and the same creamy white streaked through with grey; the veins shone silver, a little, under the halogen lights hanging from the ceiling. The cook slapped a whole, raw mackerel onto the marble and sliced its head off.

"Fuck," said Moira.

"Think the Lord accepted it?"


The waitress led them to a booth near the doorway which used to lead to the vestry. The door had been bolted, and there was a sign on it that said No Admittance. Bob grinned at the sign. Moira stared at the menu. A cartoon lobster wearing a backward collar and a rosary stared back at her, its many legs spread wide and generously above the seafood dishes on offer. She didn't like the way it was looking at her.

"Maybe I'll just have a burger," Moira said.

"You've got to try the shrimp remoulade," said Bob. "It's the best thing going on the menu. Four stars in the Trib review."

"Bob, you know I can't eat shellfish any more."

"Yeah, I know it's fashionable to be allergic to all kinds of crap these days. Next week it'll be wheat. After that you'll be living on yoghurt shakes till you decide you're lactose intolerant. How about you lighten up?" Bob snatched at Moira's menu, but Moira didn't let go; they each gripped a corner, pulled. She couldn't stare him down.

"Oh, Bob, this is stupid. Let go."

Bob tugged the menu so hard that Moira had to lean forward. He hissed across the table. "It's a date, all right? It's a date. Push out the boat, eat the fucking shrimp. All right?"

He sagged, dropped the menu on the table between them. Moira stared at the lobster and said nothing. Nearby, a woman cleared her throat. Moira looked up.

"So, um, shrimp for both of you?" said the waitress.

"Yes," Moira said.

So now I've got all my elements in place: I have a purpose for the scene, a reason for the conflict, a three-dimensional space that's much more vivid than before, and a suggestion of what might follow. Even now there are additions and alterations I could make that would make the writing more lively, and more vivid-- and of course there's no reason that the scene has to end where it does. (Actually, it ends weakly; that's really not the strongest moment to cut away and I'm not sure the scene is finished.) But it mostly does the job it's supposed to, given the space it has, and I'm on my way to a better story.

Phew, that was long. Congratulations for getting this far. Please enjoy this picture of a penguin, taken on my trip to Boston last year.

Coming up: a post about close reading. Or maybe just pictures of my prize azaleas.


* It might be tempting to argue, here, that the answers to questions of meaning or intent are entirely up to the individual, because all art is a collaboration between artist and viewer. Fair point, but it does beg the question as to why, if the artist means to sit back and leave all the work up to his audience, he bothers to paint the picture at all. If an artist can't commit to the full scope of his own vision, surely viewers would be better served to go off and make their own art instead.

And here we've stumbled onto one of my favorite pet peeves: that idea that meaning in fiction is ultimately up to reader interpretation, while the writer's only job is to be pretty, witty, and clever, in order to make others "feel" and "think." Bullshit. You're the storyteller: so commit to your story in the fullest possible sense. It's your job to see, feel, and think, and to convey to the reader all you have seen, felt, and thought. Readers may draw their own conclusions, but that doesn't excuse you from the task yourself. Do not leave all the heavy lifting to your reader. No one will thank you for it.


spacedlaw said...

Happy indeed.
Does the penguin get shrimps too?

Phiala said...

While I do want to see photos of the prize-winning azaleas, I'm glad to see writing posts reappearing. But I'm dissatisfied with the last version: I wanted to know more about the diving accident and its propensity to cause aversion to shrimp.

Fell overboard while chumming for sharks with leftover shrimp, perhaps? Or watching shrimp while diving, and attacked by a moray?

Jess said...

I dunno, Nathalie. Do penguins eat shrimps?

Thanks, Phiala. I am glad to have done a writing post. Long time coming. Feel happy that my brain is still functioning, and everything is in there.

Well the whole shrimp-aversion thing was just silly, so it went-- I thought the last version really ought to take the scene seriously.

But if you really must know, Moira got tangled in a trawling net while reef-diving and was dragged along the ocean floor for six miles. A colony of sentient shrimp cut her free as the net was being hauled to the surface, but she was frightened by their pincers. Also by their attempts to communicate by burrowing their feelers into her brain stem. She's mostly recovered, but retains a portion of the collective shrimp-consciousness she assimilated during her ordeal, and thus cannot bring herself to eat the ones she views, privately, as bretheren. She longs to return to the sea to commune with the shrimp once more, but she is pregnant with Bob's project manager's child, and so cannot.

See, it's actually a tragi-comedy. Tagline for film version: Laugh while you can, because shrimp don't know how.

Phiala said...

Ah, thank you for clearing that up.

Jess said...

You seem unconvinced by my water-tight plot synopsis. :D

Siri said...

This made me sigh with happy.

I also want to see azaleas.

I'm mostly pleased that your brain is fizzing.

Did you put a yes on Kyle Cassidy's website? You should.

When my muse comes home, I'm going to start writing again. I plan to find it in Minnesota, near the Mississippi River, and the end of June.

Siri said...

And why is it that women persist in sleeping with project managers? Male or female, they are all pigs.

Dragonsally said...

Oh, your explanation for Phiala has totally blown the rest away for me!

Much to mull over -thanks.

Jess said...

Siri - only mostly happy? ;)

A word of advice: muses do not come home, because they don't leave. Everything you need is already in your head: your ideas and your eyes and ears. It's a matter of waking the muse up, not waiting for it to be ready. Sit down with a notebook, pen, and tea for twenty minutes and spew. Get it down, who cares if it's good, who cares what it is. Just start. One word in front of another. Don't wait for Fiends, don't wait for spectacular views or music or surprises. None of that makes it happen. Writing is up to you. If you want to write, write. Don't wait.

Didn't actually see Kyle's post till the moment had passed. Not not sure what I can offer anyway, as I don't know what the project is, or what he's really looking to do. I'd really like an opportunity to get involved collaboratively with other artists and writers (and what the hell did happen to night garden? It's still incomplete), but I feel a little wary about walking into things totally blind. Maybe that's foolish in this case. I don't know. In any case, I think I probably missed the boat.

Oh, and Bob's project manager is a very gentle and sensitive lover, and probably in the wrong line of work. In his spare time he writes piano concertos for his houseplants.intie

Siri said...

I have a feeling that the Kyle thing was to set you up spontaneously with someone else, with whom you were to make art.

I quailed at the thought....

Na said...

wakey, wakey, Jess's brainy, oh yes!

lit few light bulbs in my brainy, too. thankyouverymuch.

Jess said...

Yerverywelcome! Thank you.

The Goldfish said...

Great to see you about - I've missed you! This is an excellent post, although I don't think I would have got to sleep without learning the truth of Moira's shrimp incident.

Jess said...


Hi, Goldfish! Thank you. I've missed me, too. :)