Friday, October 9, 2015

Making a Scene: Tools of the Trade

With the infrequent exceptions of novels such as Marilynne Robinson's moving Gilead, which is narrated through a group of letters, most modern stories are related in the basic dramatic unit, the scene.  A useful way of examining the scene is to begin with the premise of it as an arena, even though the setting may be in a place such as church or synagogue, or even a public library.

Each of these settings has the potential for fulfilling its dramatic destiny as an arena or at least a crucible. The arena is an enclosed area in which there are expectations of a contest.  The crucible is a container, used to heat elements to high temperatures.  Already the concept of setting takes on connotations of contest, of competitiveness, of elements being subjected to unusual forces.  

In keeping with these implications, a church or synagogue may become arenas where moral values clash or where tradition and innovation become opponents.  A public library suggests a setting in which intellectual, cultural, emotional, and spiritual concepts become the equivalents of grudges or extreme differences of opinion.

Characters enter these scenes or arenas or crucibles, bringing expectations with them.  Characters are known for their expectations.  Characters without expectations have no place in a story, either in a literal or figurative sense.  In fact, you could say of a character who had no expectations that she was not yet developed to the point of belonging in a story.  Characters without expectations are like day workers, waiting for jobs at for-hire locations, not sure what their job for the day will be until they are hired and given a specific chore.

Characters, in scenes (or arenas or crucibles) bring forth their agendas, attempt to gain as much result as possible, as in the case of Richard, Duke of York, whose agenda in Shakespeare's Richard III is clear; he wishes to become King of England.  In remarkably similar fashion, Frank Underwood, a United States Congressman and, in fact, House Majority Whip, wishes to become President of the United States.

In our introduction to a story, we discover clues relating to the agendas of each character as we watched interact in scene after scene.  If we have any experience at all with reading stories, watching dramas, we have a built-in awareness of the pattern of events, where the front rank characters pursue their agendas, meet opposition, then run the risk of losing whatever ground they may have gained.  We also understand on some level how a particular chapter is ended or the story brought to a complete halt when and if the protagonist reaches the goal.

If this happens and there are still several pages to go in the book, or if the dramatic version has only been in motion for a few scenes, we are justified in expectations of some reversal, surprise, or other complication.  Even in its day nearly four hundred years ago, Richard III followed these dramatic conventions, which Shakespeare plucked from yet earlier conventions of storytelling.

Within this sphere of stories being told in scenes, there are three basic approaches for relaying the dramatic events.  The first of these is narrative, which encompasses all the physical action taken by all the characters.  John enters the room.  Mary, who is already in the room, sees him, waves.  If she is seated, she stands up and waves again to make sure he sees her.  He does see her. He returns her wave.  This movement is narrative.  

A key to good writing, if the story is a print version, and as well good acting, if the story is staged or screened, is the way the characters and the actors who portray them are able to convey some clue about their state of mind or being through actions.  These actions may be small and personal, such as a sigh, a looking upward or downward, a grin, a hesitation.  The actions may also be more global and generous, such as posture, modes of speaking, and the wide vocabulary of body language.

Another means of delivering dramatic information has been called interior monologue.  The character is considering elements relevant to the story.  Now what? he wondered.  Hoo boy, this was not going according to plan.  Of course a character's thoughts about another character can be helpful to the reader.  What a mistake to have thought Fred could get through with this on his own.  

All these examples, from the third sentence on, are varieties of interior monologue, thought by a character as opposed to being offered by the author.  By the time we get to interior monologue, we've been given clues to help us decide through whose eyes and reactions we are being given the dramatic information.

The third and most demanding of ways in which dramatic information is brought on stage is through what the characters say to others.  Let us say a scene is being seen through the point of view of a busy mother, who has been interrupted by one of her two daughters.  "Mommy, Mary hit me."  Okay, that was dialog.  Spoken, specific information.  The mother will undoubtedly show some physical sign of irritation, which takes us back to narrative.  "Hit her back," the mother says, then returns to her work.  Dialogue and narrative.  A moment later, the second daughter appears, which is narrative.  "Mommy," she says, "why did Susy hit my back?"  

This is dialogue.  It is also funny, because it is an implied description of the child, Susy, as a literal-minded individual.  This particular implication and all others in story are a part of the attraction story holds for us.  As writers, we are well aware of the big three ways of advancing story, narrative, interior monologue, and dialogue, feeling the comfort and contentment of having eaten a well-prepared meal, but if we miss the possibilities of implication and evocation, is the story completed?

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