Monday, October 6, 2008

Making a Scene

The scene is the basic unit of story. To see this unit properly, visualize a pellucid container, a laboratory retort, a British ale glass, a water glass. Into it are poured such elements as character, landscape, ambition, suspense, reversal, surprise. Others, to be sure. Depends on you and, of course, the story. Depending on the length and intent of the story, a number of containers will be required to accomplish the emotional and intellectual dramatic ambition. The material--if any--between these containers in short stories and novels is a particular form of narrative we'll look at later. This same between-the-containers information in stage plays is called stage directions; in the teleplay and screenplay, this narrative information is director's notes and actor cues.

Starting with the first empty container, we have the introduction of certain dramatic and narrative information. Individuals appear on stage, at the very least bearing some form of expectation or anticipation. They expect something to happen, they are warned of an impending event of consequence, they are already awaiting a particular event--or they are expecting things to go on as they have in the past.

In the opening scene of Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir are already present, doing something. Through their conversation, which features the line, "Nothing to be done," we are introduced to one of the major themes of the story, the added fact that they are where they are because they are waiting for a character named Godot, supplemented with visual and verbal information about the personality of each of the two men. We also begin to harbor the suspicion that Godot, whomever he may be, will never arrive, causing us to speculate on our own about who or what Godot really is and what the significance of his non arrival may be.

Speculation is a necessary quality in opening scenes because the moment the reader/viewer begins to speculate, at that moment the reader/viewer is invested in the story, has some stake in its outcome, perhaps even begins to root for the agenda of one character over the agenda of another.

We are pulled immediately into the opening of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations with the information that the first person narrator as a youngster, couldn't pronounce his name, Phillip Pirrip, and so called himself Pip. This confession reminds many of us of our own early difficulties with language and the resulting linguistic train wrecks. In short order, Pip tells us he is an orphan, living with his sister, an overbearing nag. Pip is given to visiting the graves of his parents. Nice kid, we think, starting to feel sorry for him, already imagining a life of humdrum tedium for him. On one particular visit to his parents' tombstones, a growling, horrific man, his leg in a prisoner's chains, grabs him, threatens him, makes demands of him.

Whether it is the play, Waiting for Godot, or the novel Great Expectations, we have been given dramatic information that remains with us in each subsequent scene, information that directly influences our emotional response and reception of the scenes to come. The aggregate effect of the dramatic information is called throughline or story arc.

Beginning and subsequent scenes contain at least the following elements:

Setting, the locale or landscape in which a scene is set
Beats, or events
Tempo, the pacing with which characters say or perform the beats
Blocking, the positions characters occupy during the course of a scene
Dialogue, what the characters say to one another
Subtext, the result of what characters say as opposed to what they truly feel

Scenes may contain other information relevant to the story, conditions such as reversal of an agenda, the discovery of new information, shifts of allegiance, moral choices to be made, and surprise.

Scenes in short stories are more likely to run in chronological order, but such movement is not a convention to be strictly observed. In longer works, novels, stage or screenplays, the order of scenes may shift from present to past in order to provide backstory. In longer works with multiple points of view, a shift in time or chronology can be useful in provoking a sense of suspense. While shifting focus to another time, character, or both, a part of the reader's mind remains with an unresolved situation that took place earlier.

Wherever it is set, a scene is an arena, making the analogy between scene and lab retort apt. Compounds and substances are put into the retort which is then set on a flame. The elements of a scene are introduced in anticipation of the heat from internal and external circumstances raising the temperature to a combustion point. Scenes are accordingly heated by circumstances to the goal of producing combustion. Persons and circumstances respond to the heat of pressure or opposition or frustration or grief or seduction or some prize being offered. The ultimate goal of any scene is the presence of a recognizable emotion. The dramatic means of achieving the emotion is by applying enough pressure, heat, intensity, or frustration to cause there to be some eruption which disturbs or accelerates the growing momentum that passes from scene to scene.

In Macbeth, the audience gets an early taste of where things are going when, returning home, Macbeth is hailed by the three witches as the forthcoming Thane of Cawdor. Scene by scene, Macbeth buys into the scenario by which he will actually become Cawdor. One important point in the play comes when, seeing King Malcolm being delivered his dinner by a servant, Macbeth begins riffing on the theme of last supper, quickly equating what he is about to do to Malcolm with the martyrdom of Christ. Thus conscience is introduced into the crucible, the heat of conscience is applied, and before our eyes, Macbeth weakens, combusts, cannot go through with his planned murder.

The final scene in a story, novel, or drama is the ultimate combustion, the unthinkable come to pass, its result an emotion that becomes the key signature of the work. Scenes are microcosms of an orchestrated macrocosm, where the whole--the-result--becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The payoff of a scene is the awareness of a snowflake or two, landing on your head. The payoff of the short story, novel, or drama is being hit with a snowball.

To see this analogy come to brilliant life, read Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, where the narrator tells of ducking a snowball thrown at him by a schoolmate. The snowball hits a passing woman, well into pregnancy. As a consequence, she delivers prematurely, causing the narrator a life of guilt and recrimination. It is not merely that Davies was such an accomplished storyteller, his opening scene serves as a role model for scenes and snowballs everywhere.

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