Monday, October 13, 2008

How to Make a Scene? Give Me a Break

From the Southeast Review's online weekly craft talk, my essay on scenes and scene breaks.

Weekly Craft Talk

by Mindy Friddle

Scene Breaks: The Power of Space

Let's say you're working on your novel and you're pleased with your pages so far -- you've got some narrative tension here, you've got two well-developed characters (with complex inner lives and secret yearnings) who are heading for a showdown, an emotional meltdown, a clashing. Ah, conflict! The stuff of dramatic tension. Things are coming to a head in your story -- you've parceled out some events, thrown in some foreshadowing, and now -- it's time to deliver. Maybe the crumpled receipt from Pandora's Boxxx is discovered in the laundry, or the DNA test comes back positive, or the mailman's shoes are under the bed, or the political rival is caught foot tapping in the public restroom -- the guano is just about to hit the propeller, and your characters are finally confronting each other and they scream? Sulk passively? Brandish firearms? The thing is -- you realize with growing horror -- you've got to write it -- this quarrel. Dialogue dripping with bitterness or fury or numbness, along with the usual pounding hearts, dry mouth, lump in throat, clenched fists, slamming doors. How are you going to do this?
Try skipping it.
Or at least skipping ahead. Take up with a scene after the emotional showdown -- an hour later, weeks, even years, down the road. Start with the ramifications, the shards of the relationship, the heartbreak, the epiphany after the falling out, and work backwards. You may find you don't even need to write the actual argument. Besides, that's a lot of work, capturing all that emotion. Get the reader to do it!
A revelation for fiction writers: our best work sometimes happens in the spaces between scenes. What you choose to leave out can add so much to what you include. Look closely at scene breaks around climactic events. By cutting away from confrontations, you can let in some air, and ratchet up the tension, too.

Here are a few examples:

When David Lurie, the protagonist in J.M. Coetzee's splendid novel, Disgrace, visits his daughter, Lucy, on her remote farm in post-apartheid South Africa, both become victims of a brutal assault. After his daughter is gang raped, David blames himself. Again and again in the novel scenes cut away -- just as David's rage boils.

For example, David relents and goes to the farmer's market for his daughter, Lucy. The catch is, he must go with Petrus, an African farmer whom David suspects is complicit in Lucy's rape. We do not see David discuss his misgivings with Lucy, hear his agonizing demands that she confront Petrus -- the actual argument between them is off the page. Instead, the scene ends with David's fuming (through internal dialogue); the next scene opens with him, having swallowed his anger, at the market alongside Petrus. Nothing else needs to be conveyed; any discussions or further actions would be superfluous.

Similarly, when Lucy's female friends seem resigned to the violence and dangers of white homeowners living in South Africa, the shrugging off of Lucy's assault enrages David:

Do they think he does not know what rape is? Do they think he has not suffered with his daughter? What more could he have witnessed than he is capable of imagining? Or do they think that, where rape is concerned, no man can be where the woman is? Whatever the answer, he is outraged, outraged at being treated like an outsider.

And then there is a break. Here is the next scene:

He buys a small television set to replace the one that was stolen. In the evenings, after supper, he and Lucy sit side by side on the sofa watching the news and then, if they can bear it, the entertainment.

At the end of the former scene, David is "outraged." Outraged, but impotent. For a while he seethes with fury, but he soon follows Lucy's wishes to put aside his anger and embrace the appearance of normality. Telltale signs of damage are embedded in this deceptively domestic setting just as wounds are buried in the characters' psyches: the television is "to replace the one that is stolen" -- a reminder of the robbery. And the two will watch the entertainment -- "if they can bear it."

The shock of the attack is still fresh; they are not yet capable of humor and conversation. But the quick scene change from fury to a false normality -- perhaps even denial -- again illustrates David's attempt to honor Lucy's insistence to forget the rape ever happened. In this fashion, there is no tedium in Disgrace. The scenes provide a startling snapshot of intense emotion before moving succinctly into a contrasting scene.

The "space" in Suzanne Bern's novel, A Perfect Arrangement, occurs between parts One and Two. Berne chooses not to include the actual climactic moment when Howard and Mirella, the husband and wife protagonists, confess their secrets to each other -- secrets festering for a hundred pages, mind you. Howard has had an affair he regrets, while Mirella has hidden her pregnancy from Howard, fearing her husband doesn't want another child. Neither has mustered the courage to discuss the troubling signs of delayed development they've both observed in their young son.
The confluence of these pending secrets increase tension in the novel, especially after we realize the impact of Mirella and Howard's secrets will be far worse on their family than even they fear. After all, we understand their relationship is limping along, though both don't acknowledge it yet. So after a number of false starts -- Mirella has attempted to broach the subject of her pregnancy with Howard over the phone, Howard has tried to launch his tale of betrayal over dinner -- Mirella and Howard reveal their confessions at the end of Part One:
He let his hand slide down her head, trailing his knuckles along the side of her face ... Howard went back across the room to his closet and opened the door again to reach for his bathrobe ...
But before he had finished tying the belt, she pressed her hands to her cheeks and said, "We need to talk."
White sheets of paper slipped across her knees, sliding across the blue floral comforter like playing cards from an oversized deck.
He said, "I know."
Part One then ends. Part Two takes up days after this scene:
"They say we're in for some rain," said Mirella, coming into the living room. "As if we haven't had enough already." It was the first time she had spoken directly to Howard in nearly two days.
We are not privy to the actual argument between Howard and Mirella --only the resulting emotional turmoil of their confessions. Howard sleeping on the couch, the chill of their silence -- much has happened, and we're eager to know more. Meanwhile, as the present events unfold, we are able to reconstruct Howard and Mirella's previous argument and witness how their confessions rocked their marriage.
Ask any Gestalt theorist -- if you can find one these days: we're wired to fill in blanks, connect the dots. This "self-organizing principle," as they call it, is responsible for our tendency to perceive the whole as greater than its parts. Perhaps that's why the spaces between scenes often engage the reader -- by allowing the reader to make connections, fill in the blanks: prompting her to imagine what happened, pulling her in. The next time you're tempted to write about an argument between characters -- a brawl in a biker bar, say, or a seething row between host and hostess at a dinner party -- take a deep breath, and skip it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice with great examples, Mindy. I will definitely put this info to use. Thanks so much for posting this!


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