Monday, September 2, 2013

Wordcraft -- Making a scene: it’s a good thing

I didn’t intend to make a scene when I walked into the writing critique group at the Dallas Writer’s Garret. The group’s rules are that anyone can drop in and read a few pages aloud and receive comments. I knew the author this time had been writing, or at least thinking about writing for a few years, and at a previous meeting she’d mentioned consulting a professional editor, so I had high expectations. But what was supposed to be the first page of a childhood memoir turned out to be a chronology of everything that happened on a particular evening.

True, plenty of interesting and creepy things happened that night her parents left her and two of her siblings home alone. The pages contained a wealth of detail, but there was no cause and effect, no meaning, no goal, no resolution. In fact, “There’s no scene,” I said when the group’s leader opened the floor for comments.

“Maybe she could take out a few adjectives,” someone suggested.

At that I blew up, making my own scene, and not one of the literary variety. Comments relating to minor details such as abundant adjectives (really, I didn’t think there were too many) are well meant. But in the face of a problem as large as lack of scene structure they’re as useless as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Two weeks later, I was in the same group when another writer read, yes, a chapter composed of nothing but chronological events. Figuring this was karmic payback for my sins at the previous workshop, I spoke more mildly.

If we’re going to write fiction or creative nonfiction, we must write in scenes. There’s a reason editor/author/blogger Kristen Lamb’s recent post on five must-dos for self-editing included making sure our writing follows a scene-sequel structure. (Kristen’s post, has since appeared in the Huffington Post, where it’s now being quoted by other blogs I follow. Or see the original at

I’ve apologized to the critique group members for my original rant. Even better, I hope, was referring them to the scene checklists editor Lorin Oberweger offers freely at her site, I’m using these to excerpt basic criteria for a scene:
location, viewpoint character, goal, opposition, resolution. See how these work by checking them against any good story, for instance, “Red Riding Hood.”

The location is the deep dark woods. (I especially liked Carl Larsson’s depiction, illustrating this post.) Red, of course, is the viewpoint character. And her goal: taking a basket of food to her sick grandmother.

Don’t be thrown off by the simplicity of this goal. Until critique members call me on it, I often err by making the goals of my scenes too complex. Or too vague, a frequent side effect of complexity. Even with a goal as simple as Red’s, a story can become infinitely complex. Creating those complexities is rightly the work of the opposition. In Red’s case, the opposition is the big bad wolf, who’s out to thwart Red from her goal in the most direct way, by eating both her and grandmother.

The viewpoint character doesn’t always, in fact usually doesn’t, achieve her first goal. Remember, the wolf will have eaten the grandmother before Red reaches her house, making it impossible to deliver the basket to the proper person. Red must then find new goals, such as saving her own life and preventing the wolf from eating any more grandmothers.

How Red thwarts the wolf, how he changes strategy in response, how she overcomes -- or not -- is the stuff of all true stories, from the simplest to the most sophisticated. And it’s all done in scenes.

As an exercise, I recommend laying the scene template over your favorite stories, films, TV series, plays, even commercials, which are often thirty or sixty-second dramas in their own right. Tell your family and friends your goal in watching is to conduct serious research. Note their attempts to oppose this goal. Write a scene about it.

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