Seeming To Scene
I was in my favorite used book store and found The Scene Book – A Primer For The Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield. I’m working through her exercises. The third chapter, Beats, was an eye opener.
I’m appalled this posting is nearly 3,700 words. I can’t imagine anyone reading to the bottom of it. So, let me summarize.
This exercise was difficult in many ways. Unlike other books, I am unable to complete exercises in one setting, usually needing two or three days. My answers are quite long, in fact longer than what I feel comfortable posting, so I often only post summaries of my answers. But what has been so hard for me to face is what I’m learning about my WIP. I’m not very good.
And my WIP isn’t very good. I was foolish to ever think I could write well enough to put out a quality First Draft. If I hope to salvage my story, I have a monumental rewrite ahead of me. My friends on Scrib warned me of this, telling me that I was trying to write my Great Work at the same time I was trying to figure out scenes.
Now you know everything I learned. And…you don’t have to read any further.
1. Beats – create the beats for a scene. Fill in the beats from the perspective of an outside observer. Then approach it from the viewpoint of someone inside my scene.
|Basic Beats||Beats As Narrated Outside The Scene||Beats As Narrated Inside The Scene|
|1 – Inciting Incident – Rachael, Christopher and Annie arriving at the restaurant counter as the receptionist looks at us and then ducks away||1 – Inciting Incident – Rachael, Christopher and Annie arriving at the restaurant counter as the receptionist looks at us and then ducks away. The trio looks tired, having just woken up.||1 – Inciting Incident – Rachael, Christopher and Annie arriving at the restaurant counter as the receptionist looks at us and then ducks away. The trio looks tired, having just woken up. He and Rachael had a spat in the hotel room because she thought he was taking too long, and she wanted to get on the road, so he decided not to shave.|
|2 Waiting for her to return||2 Waiting for her to return. Rachael seems put out.||2 Waiting for her to return. Rachael seems put out. He thinks Rachael is always pushing, that it is always about her, and she never care about anyone else.|
|3 Rachael calls to the receptionist||3 Rachael calls to the receptionist. Christopher tries to stop her but fails.||3 Rachael calls to the receptionist. Christopher tries to stop her but fails. He could have said a lot more, but bites his tongue to keep from making a big scene.|
|4 Receptionist requiring chits from the front desk||4 Receptionist requiring chits from the front desk. Rachael looks clearly irritated. Christopher looks embarrassed. Annie looks distressed.||4 Receptionist requiring chits from the front desk. Rachael looks clearly irritated. Christopher looks embarrassed. Annie looks distressed. Why does Rachael always have to make everything so personal?|
|5 Rachael, Christopher and Annie walking back to the front desk||5 Rachael, Christopher and Annie walking back to the front desk. Rachael leads the way. Christopher and Annie exchange looks.||5 Rachael, Christopher and Annie walking back to the front desk. Rachael leads the way. Christopher and Annie exchange looks. He wonders how Annie can continue to be Rachael’s friend. She is always bullied and always gives in.|
|6 Rachael, Christopher and Annie waiting in line behind someone checking out||6 Rachael, Christopher and Annie waiting in line behind someone checking out. Annie moves to the forefront as Rachael sulks.||6 Rachael, Christopher and Annie waiting in line behind someone checking out. Annie moves to the forefront as Rachael sulks. This is just how things work. They will get on the road and get home before dark|
|7 Annie trying to get service during a lull and being told to wait||7 Annie trying to get service during a lull and being told to wait. Annie looks surprised when the receptionist cuts her off.||7 Annie trying to get service during a lull and being told to wait. Annie looks surprised when the receptionist cuts her off. If only Rachael will stay out of it. But, still, these motel people aren’t helping very much.|
|8 Rachael, Christopher and Annie getting the chits and returning||8 Rachael, Christopher and Annie getting the chits and returning. Annie leads the way back.||8 Rachael, Christopher and Annie getting the chits and returning. Annie leads the way back.|
|9 Rachael having to call for help||9 Rachael having to call for help. Annie fails to keep the initiative. The event embarrasses Christopher.||9 Rachael having to call for help. Annie fails to keep the initiative. The event embarrasses Christorpher. Why can’t Rachael leave well enough alone? And, these motel people just aren’t on the ball. They are playing right into Rachael’s hands.|
|10 Seeing many people waiting in the restaurant without food||10 Seeing many people waiting in the restaurant without food. Rachael wants to know how long it will be before someone serves them- the receptionist says it could be 15 – 30 minutes.||10 Seeing many people waiting in the restaurant without food. Rachael wants to know how long it will be before someone serves them – the receptionist says it could be 15 – 30 minutes. In truth, the motel hasn’t been very good about things. The TV didn’t work last night. They could have told them to get the chits before coming to the restaurant. And they were a little pricy to begin with. This just isn’t very good service. And Rachael might just be right.|
|11 Deciding to leave.||11 Deciding to leave. Rachael doesn’t want to wait. Annie becomes unhappy because she spent extra money for a motel and then not getting the free breakfast.||11 Deciding to leave. Rachael doesn’t want to wait. Annie becomes unhappy because she spent extra money for a motel and then not getting the free breakfast. Now they will have to go to some place like McDonald’s and he hates breakfast. And Rachael is only making a new day that much worse.|
The basic beats bound my scene. When I added emotion, as reported by an omniscient observer, description of each beat expanded. When I went inside my scene, my opportunity for added emotion expanded enormously.
2. Boxed Scenes – take one of your stories, and list the beats of action.
I chose a short story, Tavern Girl. I was quite proud of my story, written almost a year ago. I looked forward to deconstructing it. I was surprised at my conclusions.
A – Is it clear where a scene begins and ends?
I have eleven scenes. In few cases is it clear where one ends and the next one begins.
B – Is it clear where it takes place and how much time it covers? Do we have a sense of “being there”?
Since everything stays in the Inn, either in the Main Room or in the Servery, we are never wondering where we are. But there is no sense of time passing.
C – Does something clearly happen? Can I summarize it in a sentence?
Selima watches the brawl, comforts lutar, Master Blen-Hart warns her then returns to his chair while selima keeps her eyes down, a customer interferes with her and Uvar rescues her, then she serves a customer, passes deka, is struck by Master Blen-Hart for causing trouble, then goes to her station by the door, which suddenly opens.
D – Is there some change in the way things are for the protagonist as a result of the action (a “shift”)?
There could be, if the scene were properly structured. The key point here seems rest around selima trying to stay out of trouble, and failing to do it, and being punished for it. But the scene skitters on past that point.
3. Mission – Think of an urgent mission for a character. Make the beats of action escalate the sense of urgency. Leave your character at a point of frustration. Lay out beats with the main character alone, and then with others. Try settings inside a building, and outdoors.
Deheya is Regar’s mother. Her mission is to reach her son, being held prisoner in a different part of the Palace, before Colonel La Van, the Lord Protector’s chief henchman, reaches her son and kills him.
|Alone Inside A Building
|| With Others Inside A Building
||With Others Outside
|1 – Running down icy hallway in bare feet to doorway||1 – Edging out into the long corridor with Hiiloo and Sharshin||1 – Crossing the rocky clearing in her bare feet||1 – Helping Trooper Garn cross the rocky clearing in her bare feet|
|2 – Trying one key after another, going through seven keys before finding right one||2 – Hearing the guards in courtyard below, so trying to weave way past rickety shelves covered with books, vases, and musical instruments||2 – Pushing through the underbrush, almost stepping on a snake||2 – Hearing Black Mountain warriors on the far side of the clearing, and pulling Trooper Garn into the bushes, poison ivy.|
|3 – Door hard to open, can only get it wide enough to wiggle through||3 – Getting to the door, and hearing guards coming up stairs behind them||3 – Following the slope of the land, knowing she is walking through poison ivy, loosing her sense of direction||3 – Wiggling back, deeper into the forest, as the Black Mountain warriors begin their search for her.|
|4 – Seeing long flights of stairs she must climb to get to the tower||4 – Fumbling through the keys, trying to find the right one, just as the guards catch sight of them||4 – Reaching a bowl, where the ground slopes up in every direction||4 – Hearing them take up the chase, turning and running with Trooper Garn down the slope.|
|5 – The door closes shut behind her and she cannot open it again||5 – Getting the balky door open just as the guards arrive, dragging Sharshin through the door just ahead of them, but she hurts her foot||5 – Picking a direction and starting up slope||5 – Reaching the bowl with slopes in every direction, picking one at random and helping him climb, as they get closer.|
|6 – Finally reaches the top to another door, and realizes she left the keys in the door far below and she has no obvious way to open the door
||6 – Hiiloo staying with Sharshin as the guards start to break the door down||6 – Arrive at a crest and realizing she is only yards from where she started||6 – Reaching a clearing and realizing she is only yards from where she entered the forest.|
|7 – Deheya going on alone|
Adding someone for the main character to interact with increases complexity and the potential for conflict to the beats. Inside is more confining than outside. Outside allows for the introduction of animals and other natural perils
4. Reading for Beats – Look at a story and pick a scene. Identify each beat of the scene. Write a sentence or phrase to represent the action. The sum of those beats is the scene.
Elmore Leonard – Pagan Babies
Cindy brought menus and served drinks, they drank, they looked at photos of famous Detroiters, on the wall, they saw a local celebrity at the bar, then someone who might be a hooker, and Johnny walks over to talk to her, a tough guy intercepts him, and Johnny rejoins his friends.
This scene interested me, and I want to read this book. I found myself drawn to the characters, even though I had no clue who they were, or why they were there. Leonard created an aura of mystery and confusion that I wanted to get to the bottom of.
Kent Haruf – Plainsong
The five convened in the school, Tom looked at the Beckmans, Lloyd surveyed everyone then opened a pamphlet, then he handed it to the Beckmans, she waved the paper and glared while the boy sat stone-like, Lloyd stared at the boy, then picked up the papers, Mrs Beckham jumped up and whirled to Mr Beckman, Mr Beckman rose violently, the Beckmans the room, while Lloyd gazed forward.
This scene intrigued me from the start, and I’m tempted to read this book. I felt as if I had come to the key scene of the story. I wanted to understand what had happened, and I did not understand why Lloyd, the principal, would not believe the student, but I was left wondering what a pregnant Native American girl had to do with everything.
Richard Russo – Bridge of Sighs
He rode his bike, painted a fence, arrived back home with paint on his clothes, remembered a milk truck tour of the Borough and how his dad had delivered milk on the hill, and when he met blacks he was polite but did not shake hands, and his mother rubbed her temples at the memory.
I wanted to know more about Russo’s characters, and may read his book. Through the flashbacks, I could clearly see the boy’s father, and wanted to know more about what happened to a black man accused of threatening another when he seemed to have just been defending himself against a white man.
Sue Miller – The Lake Shore Limited
She answers the phone and talks, while he waits, he smiles and she laughs, then she sets her phone down and gets him a phone number and he hangs up.
I read this scene several time, clearly caught up in the middle of something. It wasn’t constructed as a traditional face-to-face scene, with hints of black flashes. Miller’s characters intrigued me, and I may read her book
VS Naipaul – A Flag On The Island
Hari is given a puppy for his birthday but had to be coached to show affection, went to see Lassie poisoned by bad food, tries to teach his puppy not to eat strange food by leaving pepper sauce meat out and the dog runs away, gets bitten when he tries to get to near the puppy eating, kicks the puppy and throws rocks to punish it, lures the puppy back to kick it more and throws rocks, chases it, coaxes the puppy back and clamps its muzzle down painfully.
I could barely get through Naipaul’s scene. He stared so wonderfully, and then lead me down into the horror of animal abuse. Hari showed almost no emotion as he mistreated a trusting animal. While his scene was well written, I have no wish to read this book.
When I started reading random scenes from random books, I felt funny opening just any book to just any page and reading. I’ve gotten over that. Sometimes, after I’ve read a scene, I will go back and read the dust jacket to ground myself. Other times, I don’t have to.
I noticed something else. Without exception, scenes I read are compelling. And I feel as if, in every case, I’ve opened to the key scene in the books, because secrets are always revealed. I doubt that, in every instance, I’ve actually found key reveals. Instead, it’s that in opening random scenes, for books I know nothing about, I have no preconceptions. And every detail, every action, and every emotion is fresh.
I realize how my writing is so limited and pedestrian.
5. Procrastination – Write a brief scene in which a character has to do something he doesn’t want to do. The end of the scene is when she embarks on the procrastination action. Write a series of avoidance steps up to that point, and “dress” the scene with description and the character’s thoughts.
I constructed each paragraph, in layers. First I put in action beats. Then I added descriptions. Then I added character thoughts. To turn this into an acceptable scene, I would have to blend the chunks into a smooth flow.
Rachael opened the door to her apartment and turned on the lights. One of the ounce lights popped and went out. Tonight was Sandy’s party to welcome Ted back from college. She should have left work just a little earlier than she did She only had 45 minutes to get ready.
She surveyed her living room. Everything was in disarray. Her crumpled red throw with the golden dragon flies lay in a heap, Shadow curled up asleep. Big, fluffy golden pillows decorated the white carpet, which sported little kitty footprints. And her bathrobe hung precariously from the mail table. She remembered mom always telling her to make her bed, to pick up her clothes, to be more neat, just like her sister.
Rachael looked at the invitation to the party. The understated light blue stationary, with Sandy’s tidy handwriting informed her that drinks were at 7 PM, and dinner was at 8 PM. She was always so formal, just like mom.
She looked at the clock. Black digital numbers on a gray field soundlessly morphed into the next minute, not a proper grandfather clock, let alone a mantle clock. She still had 25 minutes before she had to be there. Sandy had one of those old-fashioned grandfather clocks, which fit perfectly with her Queen Anne house, just the one mom and dad used to have. Ted liked to sit out in that old porch swing.
She went to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Her bronzer was low, and her eye liner was almost out. She should get on Amazon and order. With Prime, she could have it before Monday. At least she had kept her looks. And, without kids, she still had her figure, unlike Sandy. She wondered if Ted had a girl friend.
She looked at the clock again. The silent guardian of her time had morphed fifteen minutes into the future. She wondered what it would be like to have a clock tick tocking, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Would she feel like the sands of time were running out?
She went to the bedroom, held her new blouse up, and looked into her mirror. She had worn the Hindi style blouse just once. She adored the silky feel of the bright yellow fabric. The bare back was all the rage now, and the red and blue colored beads mixed well with the golden tassels, trailing down her back. But, this hadn’t been her style for very long.
She tossed it aside and pulled an older blouse out. Sleeveless, with a modest, frilly neck line, the back only dipped down a little. And the black edging and dots didn’t overwhelm the simple white linen fabric. She hadn’t worn this style for a long time. Still, it wasn’t musty or anything, so she decided to wear it tonight. Just for old times sake.
She looked at the clock again. Her digital minder showed she still have four minutes. This was stupid. He probably had a girl waiting for him. Why would he even remember her?
She walked to the door, tripping on books near the door. The books tumbled over, adding to the clutter. But, it was mostly surface clutter, books that could be stuffed away, and clothes thrown in a closet. What if Ted wanted to come over after the party. She would just die if he saw her place like this
She began to vacuum.
When I put this scene together, I had no idea where it was going, or why. But I did as instructed, laying down steps leading up to the decisive moment. The description helped me visualize what state my character, Rachael, operated in. She became more real to me as I described her surroundings. And her thoughts helped me understand. When I started writing this, I knew I was writing about reluctance to go to her sister’s house. What I didn’t understand was that Rachael feels like time has passed her by. For whatever reason, Ted might have been her last best chance to have something stable and concrete in her life to share with. And she is afraid to find out.
6. Cleaning Up Mud – Study one of your scenes. List the beats. Repairing the beats will give you a revision outline. If you see that the action is not clear, make it so. Sometimes the fuzziness comes from failure to put the scene firmly into place. Then you can make the beats escalate in tension to build emotion. Look to see what the responses of the characters are.
I went back and pulled, at random, Part Three, Scene Seventeen. I was very disappointed at what I read and saw. My scene was so terrible, I could not do the things suggested to begin repairs. At some future point, I will have to decide how to fix it.
To start with, I think I had three scenes scrunched into a single scene. I didn’t have very many physical beats, although there were probably enough to carry out what I needed, if they connected to anything. But…I didn’t ground the scene, providing almost no physical clues or hard things for a reader to latch on to. But the most frustrating part was that I had almost no emotion in it, so I could not attach emotional responses to physical actions. And, since I had no emotional content, nothing eventually compelled the characters to some action.
This scene is set just after a mother awakens from collapse and remembers her son’s kidnapping. Where is the emotion? I repeat, what is the emotion? If I don’t have any here, I’m just kidding myself. I don’t have a story. All I have is a laundry list.
When I built my scenes, I started from a dialog list, following Jack Bickham’s ping-pong match between two people in the scene. From there, I tried to lay in physical beats, maybe some description, and inner thoughts. And I produced something pretty sterile.
When I went through the exercise of laying in physical beats, adding in description, and then character thoughts, I could more clearly see what was happening. I wonder if I should go back to each scene and approach it in that fashion.
If I do, I will have to rewrite my entire story.