Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Making a scene -- it happens in real time

Pete usually submits poetry at the Writers Garret workshops, but this time he gave us a short story.  A kind of a short story.  It had setting and characters to die for, plenty of tension.  What more could you ask for?  “I want it to be more sceney,” I said.  “Sceney?” he asked, disdainful of a fiction writer’s imprecise use of language.  Which made me go home and think about what it takes to make a scene.  And one thing that occurred to me is that scenes – the action and dialogue, even the characters’ thoughts – occupy a dimension in time.

When you go to a theater, you stay for a couple of hours because that’s how long it takes the people on stage to perform the actions that make up the plot.  Seems obvious, but once upon a time plays began with a prologue – “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona , where we lay our scene, etc.” – telling audience members what they were about to see.  Took less than two minutes to say and then people settled down for two hours worth of entertainment.  Nobody got up and left after the prologue.  They wanted the full meal. 

Wanting more “sceney” meant I wanted to see and feel the action, beat by beat, as the passengers on Pete’s sinking ferryboat of fools bailed for their lives.  I wanted this action to occupy a space on the page proportionate to its importance in the story.  Is this real time?  Sort of.  Lisa Lenard-Cook’s workshop based on her book, “The Mind of Your Story,” dissects two kinds of time – chronological time – the series of constant, measurable moments she calls the story’s “ever-ticking present,” and emotional time -- the way the characters feel about those moments.  She advocates harnessing the two brands of time, so that, although emotional time for passengers of a sinking boat is much longer than the few minutes it takes to bail, when all their fears, prayers and curses come to an end, their boat is either at the shore or under water.  Chronological time, emotional time.  You’ll need both.  And they both take time.

(For more about Lenard-Cook, her writings and workshops see www.lisalenardcook

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