The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
by Tin House
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by Anna Keesey
MAKING A SCENE
Fiction's Fundamental Unit
What is a scene? On a particular hypothetical occasion, in a particular hypothetical place, we see enacted in front of us events and behaviors. These flow continuously until there is a break in time or a shift of place. This is the conventional definition. But what’s the context? If this is a scene, what do you call all that stuff on the page that’s not scene? And what are the variations within scenes? How can they be constructed.
Part of what makes writing fiction so difficult is that you of course must decide what’s going to happen, to whom, and why, but you are simultaneously loaded up with another set of decisions: who’ll be telling the story, in what order, with what level of detail and at what speed of revelation. The narrative theorists who mull and write on these issues, and to whom I am indebted for these ideas, people like Seymour Chatman and Mieke Bal and H. Porter Abbot, call these two worlds of choices story and discourse: story is what happens to your unfortunate characters; discourse is the way you, the writer, present it to your reader. What happens and how it’s rendered; the what of it and the way of it. So when you’re sitting there at your computer weeping, trying to figure something out, console and perhaps guide yourself with the knowledge that what you’re trying to figure out could belong to the world of story or to the world of discourse or to some nexus of the two, and it’s just not easy to do.
So let’s break it down. For now we’ll leave story up to you—what happens is for you to determine in the shower or while drunk—but let’s consider some of the most important discourse decisions you have to make. These concern what to show and what to tell about—and they will lead you to a conception of the scene.
Let’s examine a familiar narrative in terms of the discourse decisions made by the storyteller. This is the King James Bible, book of Genesis, chapter three, verses one through eight:
When we recover from yet another encounter with our inheritance of sin and our natural curiosity about what the aprons looked like and whether they in fact tied at the small of the back, we notice something peculiar. Here we are in the ur-moment in the ur-text of Western civilization, and we expect a unified narrative, a pure narrative, an unbroken utterance of equally weighted events. But what do we notice? Discourse decisions! Scene and summary!
Let me explain. We hear Eve’s conversation with the serpent in real time—he speaks, she speaks, he speaks, and so on, and what’s rendered there on the page takes essentially the same amount of time to transpire as it would in life. But the rest of the actions—Eve eating and tempting Adam, Adam eating, eyes opened, nakedness, shame, figs, aprons, God, the miscreants secreting themselves in the arborvitae hedge—which would consume a much greater amount of time than the initial conversation, take up about the same amount of space on the page. What’s the difference here? Eve’s interview with the serpent would take a certain amount of time to transpire in the physical world, and that amount of hypothetical time is devoted to the rendering of it; that is to say, story time is equal to discourse time (st = dt). This is scene. In the rest of the passage, however, story time is greater than discourse time—it would take longer to transpire in life than the time devoted to its rendering—and we call that summary (st > dt). Now, the summary mode can be very involving in its own way, particularly because of the breathtaking speed with which fictional events can unfold, so I’m not weighting scene over summary in terms of absolute value to the writer or reader. But unlike scene, summary places an extra layer of distance between the reader and the action. The reader doesn’t observe the events happening. Somebody else observed all that business in the garden that afternoon and compressed time in the recounting of it; the action is filtered and reduced.
You’ll note that these distinctions roughly correspond to the fiction writer’s maxim “Show, don’t tell.” Scene shows; summary tells. You may be thinking, “Sweet. When I get to the big workshop in the sky, I’ll be able to say to God, ‘Maybe it’s just me, but Genesis 3:6–8? Show, don’t tell, dawg.’” This of course might be a bit rash, because Dawg will surely remind you that there are plenty of examples of scene that slip by almost as quickly as summary, and plenty of summary as bejeweled with detail as a patient scene. But the basic point is valid: Eve and the serpent get more airtime. We watch them more closely. Their conversation unfolds beat by real-time beat. So the discourse choices the writer has made—what to render in scene and what in summary—have the effect of, at the very least, shining a brighter light on the disgrace of Eve than that of Adam.
In his classic text The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about the fictional dream, which is a kind of trance—I consider it a sacred one—in which people read and they forget they’re reading and they see the thing in front of them as though it’s actually happening. They drop through the letters on the page into the imagined world and they respond to that world emotionally as if its events are actually happening. This is mystical, this is amazing, isn’t it? We can read letters—hieroglyphics—that form words on the page, and the words refer symbolically to invented people and invented action, and yet we weep as if these people were real, and our loved ones.
And the scene, the action played out in front of us, gives us that feeling and puts us in that trance more than any other mode of fiction. We see the action occur; we feel the time pass. Like the scene on the dramatic stage and in cinema, the written scene carries the feeling of immediacy. Im-mediate: not mediated by another. To speak technically, a fictional scene is not unmediated because there always exists a narrative presence that is choosing the details, but the scene at least engenders the illusion of immediacy—the illusion that nobody else is summarizing the action for you and attaching significance to it; you get to see it happen and interpret it yourself. All other qualities of the fiction being equal, the scene is most trance-inducing, the most transporting and hypnotic.
Having understood that idea, though, let’s look at some variations on the scene that are available to you when you’re laying it down, when you’re discoursing your story. Let’s look at Virginia Woolf, one of those writers who push the scene, who stretch it and elongate it such that it becomes something else.
Those who have read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse will recognize these characters and probably this dialogue, but not the form. I’ve adapted the original by compiling everything that constitutes an event, everything that progresses time in the narrative, and I’ve omitted everything that does not advance story time.
Three people speak and make gestures. In this adaptation, fewer than one hundred words are used to represent events that might take a minute. But if you know the original, you know that this conversation takes place over twelve closely spaced pages of text. In the original, each of these lines of dialogue is an occasion for the Woolfiness of Woolf, that tremendous deepening and reflection and rhetorical flight in which she is characterizing the people, recalling their pasts, capturing their fleeting physical experiences, illuminating their mental processes and emotions, following the glittering floss of consciousness as it weaves throughout the scene
The acts of speech and gesture and event above, such as Tansley spreading his bony fingers, and Mrs. Ramsay asserting “Nonsense,” are nodes of advancement of the story time; the unfolding of the story. Yet, in between and simultaneous with any of these moments of the story time passing, there is a tremendous amount of fictional enriching and deepening. I call this “infolding.” The scene is “infolded” elaborately, but the story time that elapses is the same as it is in the sparse adaptation. After twelve pages, we arrive at the same moment in time—Tansley’s dismissal of the lighthouse plan.
Some writers, like Woolf or Proust, emphasize infolding almost to the exclusion of unfolding. Very few events that we consider of present significance occur—discourse time is greater than story time: st < dt. We might call this a stretched scene, an infolded scene, or a slo-mo scene.
Consider yourself, as a writer. When you put your story up for discussion in workshop, people may say, “Wow, it’s great. There’s so much going on. It’s exciting, it’s fast. But I just don’t really feel like I understand the characters’ motivations, and I can’t picture the setting.” If so, you’re probably natively an unfolder. Or do people say, “Your language is fabulous and your perceptions are terrific, but, you know, nothing ever happens.” You’re probably an infolder. If it’s boom, boom, boom and buildings are blowing up and she bursts in and says, “I’m pregnant,” you’re an unfolder. If you have a character who sees a girl on a bus, and she reminds him of another girl he once knew who collected beetles and mounted them on cards, and one of them had an opalescent shell of unearthly blue . . . you’re an infolder.
I think that whether you are an unfolder or an infolder has a lot to do with your disposition as a person and as a thinker. Some people are interested in events, in social relationships, in forces and movements exterior to the cranium; for others, consciousness itself is the only real subject matter. Fifty years from now, we’ll probably be able to say our infolding Virginia had one type of brain chemistry and Ernest Hemingway, who unfolds like crazy, had another. But the why really doesn’t signify, because you can be a fabulous writer as an extreme unfolder or as an extreme infolder, and as everything in between. I don’t offer this distinction to you as advice as how to correct your tendencies—only in order that you can identify and use the skills you have and are developing. In fact, most writers have some kind of combination of these predispositions, these tools, and use them according to the fictional task facing them. Most of us are just groping toward something that feels right and doesn’t feel wrong.
We’ve talked about what fiction looks like when story time is equal to discourse time (scene), greater than discourse time (summary), and less than discourse time (stretch). Here’s another equation: frequently, in fiction, discourse time equals zero.
For example, let’s look at two micro scenes from the much-admired Denis Johnson story “Emergency”:
Look at that little space between Nurse saying “Still” and the next paragraph beginning “Back in the O.R.” The point-of-view character has had to take his sorry self over to the OR, yet that journey is not related. Story time has progressed, but no discourse is devoted to it. So what does discourse time equal? Zero. Story time is progressing but there is no discourse beyond a carriage return and an indention. When story is not rendered but is only implied, when events are elided, when discourse time is zero, we call it ellipsis.
Now I want to return to the scene and look at variations within that mode. Let’s look at three, just to see what it is that they do so variously and beautifully and to help you expand your repertoire of strategies for moving through a scene.
Consider “Hills Like White Elephants,” probably Hemingway’s most well-known short story, which consists essentially of one long scene. A couple sits together in a train station café in Spain, on a hot day in the 1920s. He wants her to do something, and, given her sarcasm and evasions, she doesn’t seem to want to do it. We ultimately deduce that she is pregnant and he’d like her to end the pregnancy. Here’s a passage:
Notice the unfolding here. Everything we read constitutes a beat of story time. There's nothing on the page that doesn't advance the story in time. There is no infolding and no interiority—the action never pauses to investigate the thoughts,perceptions, feelings, or memories of the characters. Now, the danger of purely unfolding a scene is that it will seem shallow orthin. But this one-scene story is neigher. Why not? The most imporant factor is that for Hemingway, this style is not arbitrary. He must describe his characters' experience in this way because one of his deep convictions is the inadequacy of language to express inner pain. His characters are isolated, they are islands of lonely consciousness, and they occasionally shoot up inadequate flares to indicate their presence to others. So the lack of infolding doesn't mean there's nothing going on inside the characters—it means there is, and it's inaccissible, and that's part of his message. So how, without infolding, does he show us there's something here under the surface? How does he grip our attention with what is mostly a desultory conversation about cocktails?
Tension. There is tension between them. He is pressing something and she is resisting.
High stakes. What they are discussing—what they are also avoiding discussing—is morally and emotionally and spiritually troubling. It worries them and it worries us.
Rhythm. The statements that they make essentially match each other in terms of rhythm. There’s a hypnotic quality to the development of the scene (this and then this, this and then this, and so on). In addition to these rhythmic exchanges, the scene is punctuated by the regular advancement and withdrawal of the waitress. Do you want this drink? No. Here it is. Goodbye.
Repetition. We hear the same language again and again. Wasn’t that bright. That was bright. Try this new drink. Try new drinks. Lovely hills. The beer is lovely. It’s a simple operation. It’s not an operation. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy. Then you think we’ll be all right and happy. Afterward they were all so happy. These repetitions emphasize the inadequacy of language, the little tinkling bell of language that tries in vain to render, or even to refer to, a symphony of hidden feeling.
Hemingway does one last thing here: in the entire story there is not a simile or metaphor except for the girl's description of the hills as white elephants. That is the sole moment in which someone uses a new level of language to stretch toward new meaning, the sole place in which unspoken or subconscious material pressing up against the tight grip of the abrupt sentences actually breaks through. And of course it's significant: the white elephants are a procession of unusual mythical creatures, famous for memor and for attachment; they are also a visual emblem of pregnancy—rounded white forms. So here a changeup in style--the use of image where there have been no images—also constitutes a major vibration in the taut construction of the scene. In this one place, the lingugistic mode of a character is troubled by the unsaid and the unacknowledged.
Now let’s leap to the first couple of pages of “Labor Day Dinner,” by Alice Munro. It’s scarcely a scene—it’s the beginning of a scene—but look at what she does, and why.
You’ll recognize the similarity to Woolf—the stretched scene. What we’ve got, in story versus discourse, is essentially one event—even a nonevent, a transition from one zone to another. What’s it take, maybe sixty seconds, for four people to get out of a truck, pick up some items, and walk across a lawn? That little unit of action, however, is infolded tremendously. Munro simply says these people’s names, gets them out of the truck and walking, and then takes each of them in midstep and patiently infolds, patiently enriches our vision of them. She wants that scene of them walking across the lawn, but she wants it to happen very slowly such that all this information can be attached to them, because these details are not whimsical. How Roberta sees herself, what her wardrobe is like, what kind of deserts she makes, who Valerie is, what sort of house she keeps, what the landscape is like, and the time of year and the climate, and George’s barrel-chested competency and the ages of the girls—all these things are important to the story, which is about the passing of time, the forms of romance and family, and the inevitability of trouble and change.
Notice also that all this infolding allows Munro to proceed in an apparently indirect, apparently casual way to a central detail: Roberta is crying in spurts these days. (A hook that never fails: why is that lady crying?) Roberta’s tears are crucial and yet are mentioned in a rich context of other important details. Whereas Hemingway moves relentlessly forward with action, speech, speech, action, Munro is more desultory and inclusive, creating a fabric of detail. Roberta’s tears may be the silver thread drawing our attention, but the whole tapestry is as important as the individual characters and conflicts. The form is part of the meaning: the story concerns connections, threads, terminations, weaving; and the form of this scene is a tapestry.
Marilynne Robinson once said something in a workshop that was very useful to me (well, she said many things that were useful, as well as sublime, but this was especially good for me at the moment). She said that the reader is patient, that if you’re showing something that is of significance and if your prose is good and if there are no missteps or squanderings of the reader’s attention, then the reader will follow you anywhere. Because what’s being related in the Munro section is so purposeful and specific, we can enjoy the pause in the action in which we hear about each of these people in a detailed way.
We have on the one hand Hemingway unfolding like crazy, and on the other hand Munro infolding like crazy; they’re both brilliant. I’m offering that to you as a way of schematizing. If you start with these ideas, you’ll have a greater grasp on that amorphous, imaginative thing that’s happening inside you when you’re trying to deploy or render a fictional world.
Let's look at one last scene, which does a couple of delightful things with scenic form. This is from Hamlet, act 1, scene 1. Obviously, this is drama, not fiction, so there can be no infolding. It can only be unfolding; everything that happens has to be played or said and therefore constitutes a note of story time. But there are a couple of things Shakespeare does in the opening of this greatest of plays that have implications for you in the making of your fictional scenes: he creates levels of actuality within the scene, and then moves between them, with startling effect.
Notice that at the moment the play begins, at those first words, something has already happened. The beginning of the scene is not the beginning. Somewhere out there in the time-space ether, before the commencement of the narrative and the commitment to scene, a noise has occurred and made itself known in the consciousness of a nervous man. The implication is that there is a world outside the world of the scene, where anything can happen or be happening, and which can affect the action we see in the scene. The scene continues:
The “Once upon a time” training in our brains prompts us to think that a narrative should begin at the beginning and that the tension and energy should increase until a turning point, when a balance is tipped. That’s the conventional shape for a large narrative or a small one. But here we see that expectation flouted; we experience an entry into a moment of dramatic intensity that at once drops away. During the lull, the entrance of the skeptic Horatio provides occasion for Barnardo to tell his story again:
So as Barnardo tells his story, we come to realize not only that the scene started one beat after the beginning of story time this evening but also that the story of this evening is happening after two other important evenings. We’ve been dropped onto a rapidly moving conveyor belt of narrative, and it’s disorienting and thrilling.
As Horatio does, we sit down and listen to a story within a story (as there later will be a play within the play). We sit still with Horatio, listening to and imagining what is being described. We are taken out of the hypothetical reality of the castle roof tonight in order to go to another level, to inhabit the hypothetical reality of the castle roof last night. Surely nothing is going to happen in the physical world of this scene, right?
Just as Barnardo is on the point of saying, "Last night this ghost turned up," the actual appearance of the ghost makes us jump out of the told story into the present story of the scene itself. So even within a scene there are various levels of narrative actuality. You can be moving forward unfolding story, or you can be infolding character and other material, but you can also structure the scene with layers of narrative: story within story, play within play.
Imagine a scene in which a man is telling a story to his coworker. He’s telling about a vacation he took. During the vacation he went to an art gallery and he saw a painting. In the painting he saw a lonely little pond in the woods. As he looked at the lonely little pond in the painting, he imagined a mermaid who lived in the pond. Then he fell in love with the mermaid.
Having established all those layers, the writer can make something happen on any of them: the love the man has for the mermaid, the mermaid in the pond, the lonely little pond in the woods, the surface of the painting, the vacation, or the storytelling about the vacation. There is a dimensionality you can create by going below the surface of your own narrative. The classic way is the story within the story, but writers are always at liberty to evoke and use other media within their fictions: paintings, songs, documents. All these media have narrative and symbolic value, and they are all ways to layer the actuality in scenes.
A tremendous contemporary example is the novella Ordinary Love, by Jane Smiley, in which a woman and her adult children, who have gathered for the first time in a long time, tell each other stories. The woman hears the tale of a terrifying event in her children’s lives that she’d never before known about. The told story engenders the reorganizing of this woman’s sense of her family and is the crux of the novella. In the “real world” of the scene, the characters don’t do much except sit around and drink beer and yet the world of the characters has undergone a tremendous shift..
I’ll end with an observation I heard made by the short-fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg: You can do anything you want to do, as long as you can do it. If you can pull it off, you can do anything. If you can make it work, you can do anything you want. The scene, like fiction itself, is superbly elastic.
_________________________From The Writer's Notebook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. Copyright © 2009 Tin House Books. Order The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House here.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Tin House Books