Perhaps one of the most important elements in any writing is scene, whether it’s for memoir, screenplay, novel, or most especially for short story. A scene is a compact unit in the development of a story, novel, or play, a unique representation that propels the story or plot ahead, and definitely something other than the mere telling of a story through exposition—it shows us the story, like fast movie cuts and clips.
A scene is a complete, independent little episode, a tableau, an incident that contains characters with action and dialogue. To build a scene we need to see characters interacting, incorporating movement and speech, but also using the five senses: taste, touch, smell, see, hear, along with other elements such as feelings and emotions, perhaps what we know to be the sixth sense of a character, and even the inclusion of a symbol or token to evoke memory.
As an example, in describing Dennis Lehane’s abduction scene in Mystic River, what I remember first is the smell of the apple core left in the abductors’ car. Here is something so sweet and delectable—the apple, and yet it is juxtaposed with the horrific—an abomination—the abduction of the boy Dave by two sociopaths with vile intentions. By introducing the apple, Lehane has opened many arguments—including the loss of innocence and the first sin—the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise.
Scenes are components, little montages, not just in stories, novels, creative non-fiction, memoir, screenplays, theater plays—even in poetry. Scenes achieve an important task, such as introducing a character, an idea, a decision, turmoil between lovers, tension, or they help build conflict. There is no complete story or novel without inclusion of the obligatory scenes that make the whole work. But the single factor that enlivens your scene and gives you the foundation to construct your work is change.
I just finished re-reading Barbara Wood’s excellent book Night Trains. For me, it was as spine-tingling as the first time. Here below is how this author enthralls us by giving her readers a bone-chilling, thrilling scene. My humble description of it doesn’t even come close to doing it justice, but bear with me for the sake of explanation of what a scene can accomplish in a novel.
WWII. Wartime Poland is occupied by the Nazi’s. Winter. A cold night. Visualize a spartan and austere doctor’s office in a hospital built in the 1930s. Three people are gathered and waiting. One of them is acting very edgy. They are keeping a huge secret that could have them all killed. A fourth person is expected. This man is also involved in the surreptitious undertaking—a hoax that could save the town Sofia, or if revealed have the entire populace annihilated. But it is this fourth person who is the unknown factor, the dangerous element. What if he divulges the hidden plan? As he enters the office, a doctor immediately moves to stand behind the door and bolt it. Tension is in the air. There appears to be a normal washstand and basin in the office, but something is wrong and out of place. It is the presence of a straight razor, “shiny and clean, and it was wide open” that the key person now notices and as he begins to tremble.
Wow! I was on the proverbial edge of my seat when I read that scene. An author should give the reader the picture of what’s taking place, of what’s going on so that the reader is privy to the action, but also has the pleasure of bringing to the scene with all its existing components, the addition of the reader’s imagination to complete it. After inspecting the scene in Night Trains that I described above, the reader knows that the prevailing situation is going to be radically altered.
What do we need to make a scene work? What is the heart and center, the guts and energy of any scene? What do they require to be complete? It’s the author’s job to give us: description of place, time of day, weather, a character’s hair color and clothing in exposition, but in scene we get what the characters are doing and saying, through their senses. And the biggie for all characters are their wants, needs, motivations through cause and effect—all of these things get developed in scene, which is never static. Something must happen, transpire, alter—change.