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?