Friday, May 9, 2008

SETTING THE SCENE

First off, please accept my apologies for not posting this on Thursday. For some reason I couldn't sign into my blogsite. Thanks!

In fiction the writer will always place his character in a scene. Scenes establish the setting, time, whose point of view we are reading about, and the mood. Think about the opening of a movie. What we see clues us in on what is happening.

After the scene, which will always involve either action, drama, or emotional reaction, there will follow a sequel. The sequel is the “rest” after the scene. The character regroups, reflects, or processes what happened in the previous scene. Then the next scene begins.

Mike Klaassen writes, “If plot were an engine, scene and sequel would be the pistons powering the drive shaft.” I think that’s a pretty good word picture.




This also applies to creative nonfiction books or extensive essays. In her book, Fly with the Mourning Dove, my friend, Velda Brotherton, wrote about the struggles of Cassie Smith and her daughter, Edna, to civilize their portions of New Mexico.

When Velda writes of Cassie’s journey to New Mexico, Velda could simply record the fact that Cassie boarded a train and went to New Mexico. Instead, Velda sets the scene that Cassie is in:

The train car swayed and clacked, wheels screeching against the narrow gauge rails that curved from Alamosa to Santa Fe. Chilled by the brisk November air, Cassie gathered her coat close and peered through her glasses at her husband.

See what a difference that makes? The reader is swaying with Cassie in that train. From the scene on the train, comes a sequel, then another scene all through the book.



In short works of creative nonfiction there should be one scene, no more than two. Think “snapshot” instead of movie. Lose all peripheral vision and write the scene as if you are watching it through a paper towel tube.

My son has a feisty Jack Russell terrier named Kricket. She has the most expressive, chocolate-drop eyes. Another funny thing about her is if she is in the front yard and I yell, “Run, Kricket, Run” she will scoot from one side of the yard to the other in a great big figure 8 over and over and over.

To illustrate the importance of holding a scene in place rather than letting it run all over the page, let’s suppose I say to a friend, “You’ve got to see Kricket’s eyes.” But when I call her I say, “Run, Kricket, run!” Will my friend be able to get a good look at her eyes? No. I need to pick Kricket up and hold her still.

That’s what you do with your scene. Focus on what you want your reader to see and write only what is important to your focal point. This anchors your story.

I wrote about an angel pin my mother wore in Chicken Soup for the Nurses’ Soul. A patient who had given up on life was fascinated by its beauty and Mom used it as a way to remind her patient of how important his life was.

The pin served as an anchor that kept me from going into a lot of history, back-story, and unnecessary detail.

One of my favorite pieces of creative nonfiction is Rick Bragg’s “This isn’t the Last Dance.”

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/01/AR2005090101813.html

His anchor is New Orleans and he doesn’t stray from what he sees in the Quarter. There is a paragraph of back-story, but it doesn’t distract from the scene. It enhances it because it is succinct and relevant to the entire piece.

Last week I asked you to choose a subject for a short piece of work suitable for an anthology. Did you do that? If so, decide on your scene and possible anchors to hold your scene in place. Anchors can be but not limited to:

• An object – for instance, grandma’s quilt, dad’s tools, the old dogwood tree, a garden
• A conversation
• A special occasion or experience – like your brother’s bar mitzvah, your granddaughter’s dedication day
• An epiphany
• A person

Just remember when writing the scene that you do not have the luxury of a lot of words. Focus and write tight!

Next week: The Six Keys that connect your reader to your story.

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