June 30, 2022
By Lee Martin, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty
When children misbehave in public, parents often tell them, “Don’t make a scene.” What an unfortunate reprimand for any child who one day might be a writer, particularly if we’re prose writers. We spend our days making scenes on the page. I want to get down to basics in this post; I want to illustrate some of the elements of scene-making.
1. We need to know what our point-of-view characters carry with them into any scene. In Barry Lopez’s narrative essay, “Murder,” for example, we know that the narrator is a twenty-year-old college student driving from Santa Fe to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’ll spend the summer working on a friend’s ranch. We know he’s looking forward to seeing his girlfriend that night in Salt Lake City. We know that he’s “innocently in love,” and that he takes great pleasure from his driving. He moves with the privilege and confidence his youth and his gender afford him.
2. We need to earn the space a scene will take up on the page, which means the central action of the scene must be significant in the sense that it will cause our point-of-view characters to be slightly or dramatically changed as they exit. Some word or action should cause a shift. In Lopez’s essay, for instance, Lopez, while driving in Utah, comes to the crest of a hill where a police car is making a K-turn. With no time to slow, Lopez speeds by on the shoulder and then makes sure he stays at the speed limit as he drives into Moab. The encounter with the police car significantly alters the freedom and pleasure Lopez has been enjoying. The stakes will intensify as the narrative continues, but for the time, the near miss with the police car has made Lopez a slightly different character than he is in the very opening of the narrative. The action has indeed been significant.
3. We need details. Our basic job is to convince readers of the authenticity of what’s happening on the page. Even when we’re writing personal narratives, we have to persuade readers that what we claim happened really did take place. One way we do that is through sensory details. In the Lopez essay, he pulls into a drive-in restaurant in Moab where a young woman surprises him by getting into his car. Scenes feature moments that are out of the ordinary, and this is indeed an example of that. A stranger gets into his car and strikes up a conversation. Lopez paints the scene with the senses: sweat beading up on the woman’s small hands, her maternity blouse billowing, the cool air under the metal awning. Because of those details, we’re with him in this world made of marks on the page, this world that’s as real to us as the room where we sit as we read. We’ve left our rooms, though, and are operating now in the world of the author’s making.
4. We need significant dialogue. The dialogue must move the narrative along while also putting pressure on the characters and perhaps revealing something new about them. The woman in Lopez’s car asks him, “What do you think you might do for a woman?”
“What’s that?” he answers, and we hear how wary he is. The dialogue continues at a rapid pace building to its climax:
“For a woman who might be in trouble, might have lots of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble is that?”
“You need money?”
“Would you kill my husband?”
5. We need a moment of decision. Our point-of-view characters need to come to a place where the pressure on them is so great they have to act either through word or deed. In the Lopez essay, that moment comes with the woman’s request: “If you want to do it, no one would know. You could throw the gun away. I wouldn’t say anything. I don’t even know your name.” Lopez is unable to speak, and in his silence the climactic moment has its release. The woman says, “Well, forget it. Just forget it. Forget I even got in here.” His non-answer is the answer, and the woman gets out of the car and goes back to her own.
All that remains is the denouement, the brief falling away from the climax. In the case of the Lopez essay, it’s a small scene of him driving slowly out of town: “The peculiar tone of muscle in my young body, the quickness of my hand reflexes that made driving seem so natural, so complete a skill, was gone.” In the opening of the narrative, he’s “innocently in love.” That innocence has been shattered by his encounter with the woman who’s desperate to have her husband killed. Our narrator is no longer the same.
Unlike parents who don’t want their children to make a scene, I hope these tips will help you prose writers make all the scenes you want. Our stories rely on them.
Lee Martin teaches on the MFA faculty of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing and The Ohio State University. His new novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife, will be out in December 2022. He’s the author of thirteen other books, including the Pulitzer Prize Finalist novel The Bright Forever.