Scenes in a story are shaped by time and place, just like life (surprise, surprise). We’re told that the following techniques can be used to make a scene interesting – conflict, tension, the desires of the characters and strong images.
I invite you now to stop for a moment and think back to one of your earliest memories and then reflect on why this stuck with you. Perhaps you will find that these techniques come into play.
I remember the night when my sister was born. I was four. My dad dressed me by putting clothes on top of my pyjamas, presumably because my mum was screaming in another room for him to hurry the heck up. I seem to remember me saying ‘Mum doesn’t dress me like that.’
So, which of our techniques made that scene memorable for me? My dad would have been tense, but I wasn’t particularly. There was a certain conflict between how different people dressed me, but not enough to write home about. My desires at that time were probably more about getting back to sleep than anything else and the only image I have is …
Hey, now that’s interesting – I have an image of seeing, from a remove, a little boy on a counter-top, being dressed. Wait a second – if that little boy was me, then how come I’m seeing the scene from my dad’s point of view? *False memory, false memory, he sang out, in an outraged child’s voice!*
Okay, moving on swiftly – let’s have a look at a passage from a book. According to www.goodreads.com Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris was shelved as Creative Nonfiction more than any other book. Let’s have a look at how the Introduction begins:
When a book you’ve been working on is finally published, the first person you normally hear from is the friend or family member you dedicated it to. In a perfect world, he or she will cry, the way they might if you named your baby after them, but for me it’s never worked out that way. The first book I wrote was dedicated to my mother. She’d been dead for almost three years by the time it came out, but I figured I’d get more than enough gratitude from my sister Lisa, for whom I wrote Naked, my second essay collection. I’d planned to keep the dedication a surprise until the publication date, but then she came to visit me in New York and my editor accidentally let it slip.
“Oh, David,” she said, her eyes moist as she gathered me in a hug. “This is so sweet of you. Does it mean anything for me financially?”
Here we have an author at the height of his comedic powers waxing lyrical about dedications. Raise your hand if you spot the tension in this piece. Nothing? Okay, how about … Oh, wait – you there in the back … What was that? I’m sorry, hold on … can you pass this mike over to that lady … yes, the one with the teeth.
“Robert, tension’s not just about people being strangled, or running away from the bad guy. Sometimes thoughts can be a valid source of tension. Look at your example text – you can see that this man desperately want’s to please his family, and by the same token wants them to be pleased by him. This has to be a very big cause of tension in his life for him to have written about it. You might think that he’s just playing this for laughs, but still – ‘many a true word is spoken in jest‘. My name’s Dee, by the way.”
“Thanks, Dee – that’s very …”
“Oh, and another thing – you’ve falling a bit short in what you say here. Wouldn’t it be wise to bring in the two types of scene: dramatic, where something eventful is happening, and static, which is often more restful and descriptive. And perhaps you could explain that it’s good to alternate between these scenes to provide variety for the reader. There’s nothing worse that endless melodrama now is there, Robert!”
“Quite! Well thank you, Dee for that illuminating, erm … interjection.”
And would you look at that – over seven hundred words on the page – it looks like we’ll have to wrap it up there.
“Oh, and one more thing, Robert …”
“Can it, Dee – save it for the comments at the end!”