This is not so much a craft lecture as an exercise on scene. Mel from Stirrup Queens was nice enough to ask me to teach a class on scene for her online MFA series. This is what I contributed:
Now seemed to be a time — the first one in my life — when I neeed to know exactly waht to do, and out of all the choices I had I wanted to choose the right thing, and start in that direction. So as I walked out the busy street past the air base strip joints and the car dealerships and the motels with their winter rates already on display, I began to arrange my thinking. My mother was going to marry Warren Miller soon; we would live in another house in Great Falls, and my father would probably move away to some other town, back to Lewiston, maybe. I understood why she liked Warren: because he knew things. He knew more things than my father did, and he was older. I wondered if there had been other men in my mother’s life before, or other women in my father’s, people I didn’t know about. But I decided that there hadn’t been because I would’ve known it — being there as I was all the time, with them. And then I wondered what would happen if my father had an accident where he was, or lost his memory, or never came back home. How would that be? Or if my mother didn’t come home today and I never saw her again. Would anyone understand anything then?
When I got to Thirty-eight Street, I crossed over to the south sie and walked along the bar fronts there. Cars were parking in front of the bars, and men and women were getting out to go in and drink. Behind the bars were sheds and then rows of small new houses built on new streets and beyond that an empty drive-in movie and a railroad spur and then the town stopped and the fields of winter wheat began. – From Richard Ford’s Wildlife
I believe it was Alice Walker who once talked about how crafting her novels and characters wasn’t so much about placing these created personas in a deliberately crafted scene so much as it was listening to the characters as they came to her — and follow their voices into the lives they were to lead. This seems to dovetail with the great fiction teacher John Gardner’s urging in his book The Art of Fiction that the creation of fiction is that of a vivid and continuous dream — and it is our work as writers to enter that dream — and continue to build a believable world and a believable set of characters so that our readers are swept up in the current of events that unfold — and in their being swept up in that narrative arc it’s our hope that they witness this transformation of our protagonist — and by witnessing that change — following that journey — become emotionally moved by it — so that when they leave our work, put it down, the world and the characters linger like a dream that they can’t shake upon waking.
In class so far you’ve asked yourself some questions about your own writerly voice, your characters — and now of course that you have these characters in hand the question becomes how to place them in a world — a setting, scenes … the bones of the fictional world so to speak. I’m going to be addressing the short-story here in particular, only because it was my focus for a number of years — and because I believe if you can write a short story you have every tool you need to move on to a novel.
The two short stories that I wrote for admission into my MFA program were stories that were loosely veiled pieces of non-fiction. At the time, it was easiest for me to follow the bones of an event that had actually happened to me (for in those days I took the Hemingway quote of write what you know far too seriously) but what I can see in looking back on those pieces is that they were first drafts that were never allowed to develop fully — they did not have all of the essential components a piece of fiction needs: plot, character, tone, and form “plot is what happens in a narrative; character is who it happens to (or who makes it happen); and tone is what it sounds like. Form is the pattern of its assembly, its arrangement, structure and design” (Bell 25). … I had done the first part — which is I had sat with the characters and I had removed my inner critic and just allowed myself to enter the dream of what would happen if these characters were sitting with one another, and I imagine, for some of you — that’s where you are now.
The next step is to understand the importance of setting/scene in a piece of fiction (which is that matter of form/assembly)– and to begin to put them to work in your own piece. I like how Madison Smartt Bell puts it in his book Narrative Design — he says that the first part of the process of writing is imagination (which is where we are) — and the next, he suggests, is rendering — which is where we’re heading.
And while we’re at it — I can’t think of a better book to recommend in terms of structure than Bell’s book Narrative Design — which I still use. In it he revisits the triangle — do you recall this from any English Literature class? Imagine we’re beginning at the base of the triangle’s slope — this is the character’s beginning. As we follow the narrative, events happen, characters arrive and depart until we arrive at the critical moment of the story/novel — and then we have the falling action and resolution.
The bones of a story, the skeleton is comprised of scenes. Scenes are what determine the pace — dialogue notoriously speeds things up, exposition (and detailed descriptions of event) slow things down. Take a look at the excerpt from the Ford novel Wildlife that I included above. It seems deceptively simple at first because we have only a single character — and their interior monologue in the first person — but notice the vivid descriptions of Joe’s world in the last few sentences– what they reveal about his mindset, what he notices, what tone it sets — how it grounds us in a particular emotional place for what might come next in the novel.
Whether you happen to already have scenes in hand or are just working with characters this is a terrific exercise that allows you to see how detail anchors us in scene/ and allows for our readers to continual suspend their disbelief (that vivid and continuous dream idea again.)
I love the exercise from David Ray in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers — The Five-Highlighter exercise. Using five different colored highlighters, mark a text (first a piece of fiction that you admire and consider successful, and then your own) with different colors for each sense impression, for example blue for visual, red for auditory, green for taste etc. Find passages that use all five senses — and then see how your own scenes match up.