by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
In 101 Best Scenes Ever Written (Quill Driver Books, 2007) Barnaby Conrad describes a scene from an old film called A Letter to Three Wives in which a guy drives a girl home and she gives him a kiss on the cheek. After she goes into her house, he sits there in a daze, mindlessly sticks a cigarette in his mouth, takes out the lighter from the dashboard, lights his cigarette, shakes the lighter three times as if he’s extinguishing a match, throws it out the window and drives away.
"Without telling that this guy is in love, we know it. "|
Without telling that this guy is in love, we know it. It’s been shown to us by his actions, and that is what a scene is. That’s what a great scene does.
Scenes have to advance the plot in some way by telling us about the characters or about an action that is important. Scenes can have only one character wrestling with his own demons such as Tennessee Williams’ character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or a character and a ghost as in Hamlet, or scenes between a mongoose and a cobra as in Kipling’s Riki-Tiki-Tin-Tin.
Conrad points out that u first line might be a grabber such as Tolstoy’s in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But that doesn’t make it a scene. It’s an observation. But Tolstoy, like every great writer, gets to the scene as fast as possible. “Everything was in confusion at the Oblonsky household; the wife had discovered that the husband was having an affair with their former governess….”
The modern reader will not tolerate beginnings that are long descriptions of landscape. You have to put characters in that landscape and have them do something. A story is something that happens to a character and the faster it happens, the better.
Tami Hoag begins with a generalization in her thriller, Ashes to Ashes.
“Some killers are born. Some killers are made. And sometimes the origin of homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know if the urge was inbred or induced.”
But then she bursts into a scene that describes a killer taking a body from the trunk of a car. It’s done so matter-of-factly that she even gives a weather report .
“The night is balmy for a November in Minneapolis.”
The comments about the weather happen after the horrific scene, not before as in Dickens Bleak House, which begins with pages of description about the London fog.
Sometimes a scene stays in the mind because of its unique dialogue such as in the beginning of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men when Lennie and George are bumming through California because of the “bad thing” that Lennie has done to a girl.
“O.K. Someday—we’re going to get the jack together and we’re going to have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—“
“An live off the fat of the land,” Lennie shouted. “An have rabbits. Go on, George. Tell me, please, George, like you done before.”
"Some scenes live on in our minds just because of one piece of dialogue."|
From just these two lines of dialogue, it becomes obvious that George has had to tell this fantasy to Lennie many times before and from Lennie’s diction and his childlike nagging, we know Lennie is simple-minded. Some scenes live on in our minds just because of one piece of dialogue as in Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, when Sydney Carton says,
“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I’ve ever done before.”
Sometimes a scene is remembered for the extraordinary thing that has happened such as in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge when Michael Henchard, a young farmer, gets drink at a country fair and decides that a man should be able to auction off his wife as he would a horse that he no longer wanted and proceeds to do so to his wife, Susan’s shame. A sailor buys her and her daughter for five guineas. Michael wakes up sober the next morning and sets off on a journey to find his wife and daughter, and so begins the plot.
A scene like that at the beginning can make the reader curious, which is exactly what the writer wants. Elmore Leonard in Deaky Friday begins with a rich young gangster in a tub who gets a call that tells him,
“I’m supposed to tell you that when you get up, honey, your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling.”
Several sticks of dynamite have been planted under his tub to be set off when he gets up. Writer got your interest? Here’s a scene from a Grisham novel, The Testament:
“The lame man walks, almost runs past the row of leather chairs, past one of my portraits, a bad one commissioned by my wife, past everything to the sliding doors, which are unlocked. I know because I rehearsed this just two hours ago.
“Stop!” someone yells, and they’re moving behind me. No one has seen me walk in a year. I grab the handle and open the door. The air is bitterly cold. I step barefoot onto the narrow terrace, which border my top floor. I lunge over the railing.
If we never read this book, we’d know by this scene that the character has money: who else gets a portrait commissioned, and more than one at that? We also know that the man’s wife is out of touch with him by commissioning a bad portrait of him. He’s also been faking not being able to walk for a year. And he has a plan that leads to his suicide, or an attempt at one? Not only is the reader’s curiosity raised, but also we find out so much about this character and certainly the plot is advanced, by his jump.
"After writing a scene, go back and see if it’s too wordy. "|
After writing a scene, go back and see if it’s too wordy. Elmore Leonard advised writers to leave out any words the reader would skip. Make sure that your scene is vivid, that we can see it, hear it, feel it. Don’t way too long before it begins. And make sure that it shows something about the characters and their relationships to others or, no matter how well written it is, the scene belongs on the cutting room floor.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.