Category Archives: Scene

My First Contest

So, as the title implies,  entered my first contest today. It was a “funny scene in 350 words or less” kind of contest hosted by Nathan Bransford. I’ve had this idea for a few days, based on something my daughter said to me. Let me know what you think!

Rite of Passage

“What happened in here?” her mother asked, exasperated. The little girl pulled at her ruffled princess pajamas as she surveyed the carnage. She stood in a sea of stuffed animals and books.

“I don’t know, Mommy,” she said. “It was like this when I got up.” Her mother just stared at her, incredulous.

“Really. Then who made this mess?” the mother asked, tone cold.

“I wasn’t me, Mommy. I promise!” She was so endearingly earnest, but her mother sensed a con in progress.

“Sweetie, no one has been in here but you. So tell the truth – who made this mess?” The little girl’s eyes widened as she whispered.

“Squirrels.”

 

Old Red waited, surrounded by the elders of the tribe. His nose twitched and a tiny hand reached up to scratch it, twirling his luxurious whiskers. His tail curled magnificently behind him. That tail proclaimed his right to rule.

“Bring forth the candidate,” he chirped. Humans called him cute, but no one here mistook the violence behind those limpid brown eyes.

A young squirrel was propelled forward from the crowd, his ears unmarred by combat. His tail was imposing for such a youngling, though, and Old Red knew that this one would bear watching.

“So,” Old Red intoned. “You embark upon your vision quest.” The young squirrel nodded imperceptibly. Old Red barked, contemptuous.

“You are timid to have such a flamboyant tail,” he chided and the assembly laughed. The young squirrel hunkered lower. Perhaps Old Red had nothing to fear, after all. He raised a paw to silence the crowd and then piped his declaration.

“You will go to the house of the twin dogs and destroy the room of the small child on the second floor. She has many stuffed toys to disembowel and books to shred. Bring me the button eye of the black bear as proof of your victory.” He leaned down and whispered into the trembling ear.

“Do not come back without proof, young one, or I shall rip your tail from its base and drive you from the burrow.”

 

 

 

 

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Scene Analysis – Out of Africa

One of the initial excersises in my scene book is to take a memorable scene from a movie (or book, of course) and write about the below enumerated topics.  I had a hard time answering the prompts without slipping into literary analysis, but I think that’s OK. It may not be what the author meant, but I can see how doing this style of analysis might be really helpful in a re-write of my manuscript. I don’t think I could actually write creatively and keep these ideas in mind, but they may be good after-market questions to guide in scene clean-up later.

“Out of Africa” – Dennis’ Funeral

Action: Karen von Blixen and the rest of the town attend a funeral for Dennis, who has been killed in a plane crash.

Emotional Response: the townsfolk are all saddened by the loss of an established resident. However Dennis, although well liked, has always been distant and eccentric with unpopular ideas about the colonization of Africa. So their loss is somewhat superficial. Few had known Dennis well – his partner, who has already died, and Karen.

Karen suffers true loss, but in a detached way. She had recently ended her relationship with Dennis because his desire for freedom was too much in conflict with her need for ownership – a fundamental difference that underlays their whole relationship and their thematic representation of the African situation. So, Karen had effectively already lost Dennis – he planned to accompany her to the train station as she leaves Africa for good. Regardless of whether he lived or died, they would never have seen each other again.

In addition to ending her relationship with Dennis, she has lost her husband (a marriage of convenience, but Braun is the reason she comes to Africa in the first place and he has asked her for a divorce to he can remarry), her farm, and “her” tribesmen (the tribe that lived on her land will be re-located by the bank after they foreclose on the farm). She has also lost her mother’s investment, her home, and all her possessions (she has to sell her furniture and clothing to pay for the passage back to Denmark). Dennis’ death is a fitting end to her tragic season and she reacts with little emotion, deadened and numb from her accumulated suffering and loss. She says, “He was never ours. He was never mine”, which seems a summative phrase for the entire story – the more you claim ownership over something, the more devastating its inevitable loss.

In many stories this would be a characters excuse to wall themselves off emotionally. Here, though, as Karen holds the symbolic handful of dirt over the grave, her hand and resolution falter and she snatches the soil back. She clutches the handful of native soil near her heart(again reinforcing the symbolic union between Dennis and Africa). Then she silently turns from the crowd and, without further explanation or excuse, walks away. Her loss becomes a treasured object, compressed by the pressure of her grasp. You can imagine that she brings that clump of dirt with her back to Denmark, occasionally bringing it out of some keepsake box to caress in place of a lover. She never returns to Africa, instead returning to her mother’s home in Denmark where she becomes a well-known author.

This is also a fitting end for Dennis, whose dream of a free and wild Africa is disappearing as colonization rushes blindly forward. He would have liked his memorial, Karen comments – a patch of beautiful wilderness where a pair of lions rest together and a clot of hardened African soil, transported to a cold and foreign land by someone who had loved him enough to give him up.

What Did It Do For The Story:  This scene provides the emotional closure, both for the love affair and Karen’s dreams for her farm. Karen is able to say goodbye to both characters (Dennis and Africa) before leaving them forever. It also gives her the chance to verbalize the lesson that Dennis always wanted her to learn –that nothing ever really belonged to her except her own experiences.

Pulse:  During the whole movie, the narrator (Karen) has referred to this scene – “until Sarvo”. This scene pulls the movie towards it. The reader is kept wondering, then dreading, this end as it becomes increasingly inevitable. The scene itself in calm and restful; it is a release of the stress and expectation of the preceding heartache. Karen’s loss is very personal, but it is also universal. The reader can relate to the loss of Dennis and, in relating to the death in turn relates to her entire loss and the thematic loss of the country in its native state.

Dennis personifies Africa pre-colonization. He takes a huge theme and makes is small and personal, allowing the reader to absorb the thematic message while still connecting to the narrative. 

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A Scene is Like A…

So, I’m starting with a book on writing scenes (“The Scene Book” by Sandra Scofield). The author starts by talking about the four components of a scene. One of the four is that a scene has a “pulse”. By way of illustration, she lists some similes that some of her students came up with for scenes – a scene is like an engine, like a beating heart, etc. So I thought of two of my own.

First, a scene is like a scab. Gross, I know, but what I mean is that the feelings elicited are (in some ways) universal. Everyone has had a scab. The word immediately invokes all the feelings of the scab – the itchy feeling, the memory of the injury, the frustration as the scab catches on something, the discomfort, the unattractiveness, the waiting for it to come off. You know – I know you know. And that’s the point. In any story, there should be some sense of universal experience. Otherwise, how do you engage a reader? When I read a book, the characters I most remember are the ones that I related to. Not because they were like me, but because we shared some common experience or opinion. Because I could understand why that character reacted to something in a certain way without the author telling me. I could empathize. I prefer stories where the author isn’t spelling out every little emotion and in order for that to happen, I need to be able to empathize.

So if I say something like, “her finger reached involuntarily towards the scab”, you don’t need to know why, do you? You know why. You can imagine it yourself. So I’m not obligated to spend a paragraph telling you about the itch or the impatience or the constant irritation. I can leave it to you to interact with the text yourself. And I’m not insulting or boring you with an over-long description of something you understand implicitly. And if I use a scab as a metaphor, the same thing goes.

I am wordy by nature, so this is a really good lesson for me. My main character is prone to over-long self-reflection and it causes problems with my pacing. If I were reading it, I would skim or skip that part and why include a passage that a reader is just going to ignore or grudgingly plod through anyway? So if I can identify when the component of a scene is universal, I can save the reader the time by engaging their empathy with some key phrase or image and then leave it to them to build their interpretation.

Second, a scene is like a supernova. It sounds over dramatic and trite, but I’m going somewhere with it, I promise. When I re-read that simile, I immediately see a fist-bump followed by an explosion – and there are guidos. Not good. But I suppose that the superficial image does work. A scene should have something important happen. Maybe not a big action car chase, or anything, but something should happen that drives the story. Or else, what’s the point? I’m not saying that there should be no beautifully constructed descriptions of the sunrise, but that’s not really a scene. So maybe there is an explosion. But that’s not really what I mean.

It’s kind of like the scab simile. Most people at least know what a supernova is, right? At least, a decade worth of my students should. It’s a big explosion where a star blows up (that’s not exactly right, but I’m gong for the everyman version). So, there is a common-knowledge kind of value to the simile. But, there’s a whole lot more to a supernova than the explosion. In fact, while the explosion is the most dramatic part, it’s the culmination of a huge chain of chemical reactions and physical changes that the star undergoes at the end of its life – changes that are impossible to observe without specialized tools and a clue. And only a few stars even get to die this way.

If you build a scene such that everyone can understand it (like the scab), it doesn’t mean that you can’t build in nuances that only some of the readers will get. When I say “supernova”, most people will get the big concept. But some people will also get the nuanced meaning and it will become a richer scene for them. The big group won’t suffer or miss out on the main meaning but there will be just a little more meaning for those who have the prior experiences to recognize the deeper intent. Scofield says that there shouldn’t be this big disparity between “literary” fiction and “popular” fiction. Beautiful language and deep, thematic ideas should and can be combined with more accessible content – the idea is that every reader will get what they need from a book, even if it isn’t everything that the author intended.

So if I say, “he exploded like a supernova”, the reader might just get that he exploded. That’s descriptive all by itself. But another reader might understand that there was a long fight between two opposing forces inside the character, that there were physical and internal changes that eventually overcame the character and caused his violent destruction and/or re-birth as a more mysterious and dangerous force (like a neutron star or black hole). Too nerdy? Fine. For a scene like this, the author’s job is to make sure that the reader is moved along appropriately, regardless of how deep their understanding of the scene and it’s circumstances. Unlike the scab, there are some emotions or circumstances with which not every reader is going to empathize. The author needs to know that and write accordingly so that their superficial reader gets the idea and their deeper reader isn’t alienated by needless exposition.

For concrete comparisons, let’s use movies. We got a free week-end of Cinemax lately and “the Book of Eli” was on. It was past my bedtime so I didn’t watch it again, but I think it’s a good model. It was a cool move, right? Neat looking, reminded me of the video game “Fallout”, had Denziel Washington and Gary Oldman… There was action, there was drama, there were monsters (both physically and metaphorically). I think you could have just enjoyed it superficially, but there was some deeper meaning too: themes of power, the abuse of power, the power of words and objects, etc. It could be enjoyed on multiple levels by a variety of audiences. I think it did get a bit pretentious at the end, but that’s a common pitfall.

So it doesn’t have to be a choice between popular and literary – between “National Lampoon” and “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. Or “Twilight” and “The Fountainhead”. The scenes that create a compelling story can be built to scaffold meaning and character to lead the audience where you need them to go while still providing depth for those that want it. That’s the author’s job. Dang. Do I want THAT job?

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