Thursday, July 3, 2008

Making a Scene

The basic dramatic unit is the scene. Put enough of these units together and they take on a form and a path, developing characters and accelerating complications and insights until they form a vignette, a story, a novel, a play. Like the throw of dice in a game of liar's poker, scenes present varying dramatic options to the point where they become memorable enough to eclipse the narrative in which they appear.

In varying degree, scenes have at least the following ingredients: setting, characters, beats, pace, blocking, tension, subtext,dialog. They may also contain reversals of fortune, shifts in power, changes in attitude, shifts of allegiance, surprise, discovery, revelation.

Characters come into scenes with expectations, which may be frustrated or met. A character who achieves an expectation may experience buyers' remorse or conversely indulge exuberant celebration. Just as likely, characters may enter scenes with fears, hopes, prejudices, agendas. A character who enters a scene with no expectations is coasting, admittedly a judgmental take, nevertheless one supported by the understanding that story requires of characters a sense of being right about something.

A character who is right about something--an interpretation, an entitlement, a sense of being a victim or a protector--has earned admittance to the tent of story and must now pursue the goals that drive him, perhaps tentative at first but then with the increasing intensity of ambition. Some characters require one or more scenes in which to ratify or shore up their sense of being right, which instills within them the glorious dynamic of defensiveness, which they are perfectly free to interpret as justice must be done. Even the ghost in Hamlet has a agenda, which drives the story forth, stirring up from beyond the grave the stew of ambition, sexual jealousy, and power. That lovely, dysfunctional family, the Macbeth? They are also propelled by ambition, but can we say that Dorothy Gale is a passive observer?

The scene is a crucible to which the heat of ambition or agenda or desire is applied. If a scene does not materially advance the movement of story, it may still earn its keep within the narrative by demonstrating or revealing important information about the characters, information that will effect the reception of the characters by the readers.

If scenes are set in landscapes where some characters are more comfortable than other characters, these individuals are at an advantage, which may be exploited, undermined, or neutralized. If scenes are cast in landscapes where none of the characters are comfortable, an added atmosphere of tension seeps into the dialog, the subtext, the likelihood that the crucible will boil over. In the famed motion picture, The Third Man, directed by Sir Carol Reed, the illusive and amoral Harry Lime has a surprise meeting with his chum, Holly Martens. They meet in the Riessenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Vienna amusement park, the Prater. Looking down upon people beneath his vantage point, Lime compares them to dots, then makes the wry, cynical observation that defines him and separates him from Martens. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Arbitrary as it may sound, scenes should be wound around the armature of at least one salient emotion. Characters may not agree with that emotion, may be prevented from recognizing it by the sun-in-the-eyes of their own agenda, but the reader will get it.

And don't forget the scene in a small lunch room, with the character of Bobby Dupea wanting at this point in Five Easy Pieces nothing more than a conventional breakfast. "You want me to hold the chicken," the waitress asks Bobby, producing not only the crucible overflowing but a subsequent persona for the actor Jack Nicholson.

A scene then is a crucible, an arena, a place where characters go armed with the baggage of their past, their attitudes, their agendas, fortified with a toolkit of their abilities and hopes. The scene is the Swiss Army knife of story.

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