Saturday, December 6, 2014


There are time when your enthusiasm for a point to be made while teaching can be seen at bullying. You reached such a moment with a writer of such skill and grace, she was able to narrate an entire, novel-length story without a single use of dialogue.  She accomplished this feat by causing the reader to believe actual exchanges of dialogue had been made, and yet, there was not one quotation mark in the entire manuscript.

"I see your point,"  she said, in response to your graphic demonstration of what a scene is. "I really do,"  she said, "but you have to stop because you're getting my feet wet."

Your props for the demonstration were a standard-sized water pitcher of the sort used in restaurants, and a standard size drinking glass, also of the sort often seen in restaurants.  By your estimate, the full pitcher would have at least enough water to fill twelve glasses.  

Your point to this writer was the anomalous relationship between the pitcher and the glass.  "The glass represents the scene,"  you said, beginning to pour.  "The pitcher represents all the necessary elements that need to become a part of a scene."

"Yes,"  she said, "I understand, and my feet are being soaked."

"But," you said, the enthusiast, not the bully, "now you will always remember."

To advance your thesis, you believe a scene must be given extensive organization and choreography if it is to stand out as a memorable scene, one readers of a short story or novel will remember, long after they've forgotten the dramatic threat often referred to as the plot.  All you have to do, in a conversation or a classroom, is mention the early Jack Nicholson film, Five Easy Pieces.  The moment you do, someone in the group or class will say, "You want me to hold the chicken?"

There is another such memorable scene in the play and its filmed version of Ronald Harwood's   The Dresser, about an aging, deteriorating, and quite alcoholic actor during wartime England.  The actor's servant has to struggle to get the actor through a performance of King Lear.  One of the more memorable scenes is a masterpiece of what could go wrong under such circumstances, when the play at hand is Lear and the actor arrives in blackface as Othello.  

Yet another wrenching shimmers forth when the actor, speaking to his servant, speaks of a transformation that comes from time to time to the gifted actor, who becomes aware of being seated in the balcony as a spectator, watching the actor perform.  This is a poignant and chilling moment in which the duality of the actor's persona/character is evoked rather than given a simple explanation.

These are only three examples of the thousands of meteor showers in the dark night of dramatic endeavor.  Of course, one of the more memorable ones from contemporary times, when, toward the build to the final curtain of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire,  its main character, Blanche Dubois, says, as she is being led off stage by attendants from a mental institution, "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers."

There are a number of technical necessities for every scene in every story, not the least of which is the requirement for at least one tangible emotion.  In many cases, the emotion is complex, indicative of some psychological process in operation or a philosophical conflict being engaged.  In many other cases, the simple, but vital presence of suspense or tension is essential.  

These are only the tip of the ice berg.  Other possibilities vary with the number of characters present, their relationships with one another, and any number of possibilities related to each character's life before and after the particular scene in which they are appearing.

Every moment within a scene is fraught with some kind of plea for help or recognition, a desire to be left alone, frustration from being misunderstood, self-loathing for having said or done the wrong thing or for having not done the right thing.  These are not your benchmarks for story, although they become so as you become aware of their importance and effect, not to forget your attempts to apply these benchmarks to your own stories.

True enough, stories find their way into print without scenes of such packed dramatic energy.  Motion pictures will sometimes seem to lack these dramatic essentials.  In what seems to you poetic justice, the stories, plays, and films that do deploy scene after scene with this overcrowded sense of intensity and raving humanity become memorable icons of one of the oldest forms of human communication.  

These are the scenes and stories where the impossible has been brought to bay.  The pitcher filled with the tense irony of drama has been poured into the drinking glass.  The reader or viewer is aware of the wet feet of consequence and involvement.

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