Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Making a Scene Everywhere You Go

The basic unit of dramatic construction is the scene.  As the atom contains smaller particular components, the scene is a matter of events, arranged in a pattern the writer believes leads to a resonant emotional payoff.  These events are called beats.  Every action within a scene—even a thought—is a beat because it occupies time.

Tom sat up.  One beat. Tom sat up, then looked about him.  Two actions, thus two beats.  Tom sits, looks about him, then returns to sleep.  Three beats.

Get the picture?  Even “Tom thinks things over” is a beat because Tom, doing so, uses time.

There is no minimal number of beats nor any number considered to be a surfeit so far as dramatic conventions are concerned, that is, so long as the elapsed beats contribute to the overall development of a story and the unfolding sense of the characters within the story.  We’d be no less likely to be put off by one beat too many or one beat too few in a story than we would notice an extra or missing note in a symphony.


Unless the missing notes were the fourth in the opening salvo of notes of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor, opus 67.  If the note were to go missing here, many of us would “notice” the omission because of its lack, while others among us would in their mind fill in the note without further thought.

This is a demonstration of what you try to do, particularly when you are telling a story.  This is evoking the presence of the note.  This is bringing the reader into the scene, in fact into all the scenes, as an active participant.

You have noted many times the presence of time is the unifying force in story, music, and acting.  Timing has a role in photography because it defines the amount of light allowed to pass through the lens and onto film or the digital sensor.

Timing in all these endeavors brings into play the pacing of the dramatic, musical, or photographic beats or events.  The same series of events will undergo a change of personality when the tempo is increased or slowed down.  An impatient character forces a sense of tempo change upon a scene to the same extend and degree a lumbering or merely deliberate character evokes a response of impatience.  Oh, get on with it.

In similar fashion, a number of sentences of approximate length, delivered at the same tempo, can have a hypnotic effect on the reader/audience.  A symphony orchestra can change the personality of a well-known passage of music by using a similar approach.  The orchestra is traditionally tuned to a scale in which the tone of A, Concert A, vibrates at 440 beats per second.  The conductor may literally speed the entire orchestra up or down by an adjustment in the vibration rate of A.  Of course the conductor may also increase or lover the tempo at which the beats or notes are played.

A run of short declarative sentences will impart through evocation the sense of the narrator being excited, out of breath.  Longer sentences, Faulknerian sentences, make splendid examples appropriate for this investigation because Faulkner wrote of and spoke of the sense that he could not get away from the past.  What better way to show a narrator engaging his entanglement with the past than through languorous and serpentine sentences, spiraling off in all directions as the individual tries to shed the past as though it were some clinging spider’s web?

The scene also has a beginning where some dramatic equivalent of a large rock is dropped into the equivalent of a pond, producing destabilizing effects, triggering action, sending readers in curious pursuit of wonderment.  These things may be described and, to an extent, have been described, but the ones you most remember, the ones you most try to emulate in your own work are the scenes where descriptions are pushed aside for the more fecund soils of evocation.

Of all the things a scene should have—setting, characters, beats, dialogue, tempo—to name only a few, it should also have the one thing it cannot produce directly; it should have the presence of evocation.  To put it quite another way, it should have the opposite of literal presence.

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