Scenes are the building blocks of narrative stories. Most good narratives are made up of scenes, that not only drive the unfolding story but also provide context and information. What are the elements of a scene?
- Description: You need to set the scene physically and emotionally. Where are you? What's it look/feel like? Description should be concrete, specific.
- Character: Scenes involve people.
- Dialogue: People interact with each other, within themselves.
- Action: Something happens.
- Point of view: Scenes are told from a point of view. Ominiscient narrator, the view of one of the characters, etc.
- Intimate detail: Intimate detail, the kind the comes from research and/or immersion makes your scene seem real.
Because we tend to use scenes to provide context and information, we often end up with scenes within scenes, and move around within time within a scene. I've broken down Lee Gutkind's account (and reproduced it) below the fold. If you scroll further down, you'll see a sample scene analysis which, if y'all print it out and read it, we can talk about in class. It's not perfect, but as templates go, it's a fundamentally sound one.
Here's Lee Gutkind's description of it, broken down into bullets:
- scenes contain action
- and dialogue; better to overhear dialogue then to use information acquired through direct questioning
- intimate detail; an “intimate” detail is one without which the reader might not know or imagine
Here's what Gutkind actually said:
Writing in Scenes
Vignettes, episodes, slices of reality are the building blocks of creative nonfiction - the primary distinguishing factor between traditional reportage/journalism and "literary" and/or creative nonfiction and between good, evocative writing and ordinary prose. The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place or personality in action. Before we discuss the actual content or construction of a scene, let me suggest that you perform what I like to call the "yellow test."
Take a yellow "Hi-Liter" or Magic Marker and leaf through your favorite magazines--Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker or Creative Nonfiction. Or return to favorite chapters in previously mentioned books by Dillard, Ackerman, etc. Yellow-in the scenes, just the scenes, large and small. Then return to the beginning and review your handiwork. Chances are, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of each essay, short story, novel selected will be yellow. Plays are obviously constructed with scenes, as are films. Most poems are very scenic.
Jeanne Marie Laskas, the talented columnist for the Washington Post Magazine, once told me: "I only have one rule from start to finish. I write in scenes. It doesn't matter to me in which order the scenes are written; I write whichever scene inspires me at any given time, and I worry about the plot or frame or narrative later. The scene - a scene - any scene - is always first."
The Elements of a Scene
First and foremost, a scene contains action. Something happens. I jump on my motorcycle and go helter-skelter around the country; suddenly, in the middle of July in Yellowstone National Park I am confronted with 20 inches of snow. Action needn't be wild, sexy and death-defying, however. There's also action in the classroom. A student asks a question, which requires an answer, which necessitates a dialogue, which is a marvelously effective tool to trigger or record action. Dialogue represents people saying things to one another, expressing themselves. It is a valuable scenic building block. Discovering dialogue is one of the reasons to immerse ourselves at a police station, bagel shop or at a zoo. To discover what people have to say spontaneously - and not in response to a reporter's prepared questions.
Another vehicle or technique of the creative nonfiction experience may be described as "intimate and specific detail." Through use of intimate detail, we can hear and see how the people about whom we are writing say what is on their minds; we may note the inflections in their voices, their elaborate hand movements and any other eccentricities. "Intimate" is a key distinction in the use of detail when crafting good scenes. Intimate means recording and noting detail that the reader might not know or even imagine without your particular inside insight. Sometimes intimate detail can be so specific and special that it becomes unforgettable in the reader's mind. A very famous "intimate" detail appears in a classic creative nonfiction profile, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," written by Gay Talese in 1962 and published in Esquire Magazine.
In this profile, Talese leads readers on a whirlwind cross country tour, revealing Sinatra and his entourage interacting with one another and with the rest of the world and demonstrating how the Sinatra world and the world inhabited by everyone else will often collide. These scenes are action-oriented; they contain dialogue and evocative description with great specificity and intimacy such as the gray-haired lady spotted in the shadows of the Sinatra entourage - the guardian of Sinatra's collection of toupees. This tiny detail - Sinatra's wig lady - loomed so large in my mind when I first read the essay that even now, 35 years later, anytime I see Sinatra on TV or spot his photo in a magazine, I find myself unconsciously searching the background for the gray-haired lady with the hatbox.
Finally, and perhaps most basically, think of a scene as a unit of action. In each scene, define who (character or characters), what (situation), when (time of day), where (place of action), and why (purpose of the action).
Example Scene Analysis
In the opening scene of his Esquire article “The Man of Tomorrow Goes to the Prom,” Mike Sager expertly develops a narrative around a unit of action. While a scene requires action, this scene proves that the action need not be exciting or extensive. Indeed, the action here only includes a short conversation between Jesse and his parents about a basketball game he lost. Nevertheless, his use of description, dialogue, point of view, and intimate detail make this small event surprisingly revelatory.
Structuring the scene with alternating dialogue and description, Sager uses both to unify it. The conversation takes place in Jesse’s family’s kitchen, a fact revealed in the first sentence, describing Jesse “slumped in his regular chair at the kitchen table.” Sager reinforces the image of the kitchen by noting that “The dishwasher churns,” but then abandons the setting to describe Jesse for two paragraphs. He returns to the setting by describing the room’s “Smoky Taupe” paint job and ceiling fan, and uses “the dishes in the sink” to remind the reader that this room is the kitchen. This dishwashing motif is completed much later in the scene’s last dialogue, in which Meryl “[takes] up station behind the granite-topped island in the center of the room” after “shutting off the water at the sink.” By using a recurring image, Sager establishes an enduring picture of the scene’s exact physical location. He uses a similar punctuated pacing to locate the scene in a broader sense. His second sentence states simply, “It is late afternoon in the suburbs,” establishing time and a sense of the community to which this kitchen belongs, but it is not until the fourth paragraph that these are detailed. A look out the window reveals a bright afternoon sun complete with “storybook blue” sky, as well as suburban lawns being mowed or nibbled on by rabbits under a palm tree – a hint that Jesse lives in southern California. But again, it is not until a later paragraph that Sager specifies the broader setting by describing Jesse “at Capistrano Valley High School, in Mission Viejo, in Orange County, California.” This echoing style of description enables Sager to intersperse action with content-filled digressions without letting the setting of the conversation fade from the reader’s memory. He uses a similar technique with the dialogue to help the reader remember the subject of the conversation. The first instance of dialogue, or interaction between characters, portrays Jesse moaning, “Ahhhhhhhh!” and Jesse’s mother looking up in response. After some digression, the next piece of dialogue starts as she attempts to learn the reason for Jesse’s outburst: the lost game. Following another digression, the third dialogue repeats Jesse’s “Ahhhhhhh!” Finally, the scene ends by inverting the first interaction between mother and son: this time Meryl asks Jesse if he wants a sandwich, and Jesse responds with yet another “Ahhhhhhh!” Thus the scene, though it digresses through descriptions of setting and characters, is brought full circle by this expression of Jesse’s angst.
Thus dialogue and description provide a unifying framework for the scene, but what are they framing? Perhaps I should ask “whom” instead, as the primary purpose of this scene is to provide an introductory characterization of the article’s key figures. Indeed, the digressions between dialogue and setting focus on describing the Epstein family. Since Sager does not insert himself into the scene, the reader does not see them through his eyes. Instead, the voice of the article positions the reader as an Epstein himself: if not Jesse, then at least a close sibling. In other words, Sager writes like Jesse speaks. This is most apparent in the two extraordinarily long consecutive sentences following “I forgot to tell you.” These ramble on and on, jumping between random details about Jesse on the slimmest connections. In fact, it recalls the length of the article’s full title: “The man of tomorrow goes to the prom: every man has to start somewhere. Usually it’s around age seventeen. The life of one post-adolescent American male, 2003.” Professional writers, committed to brevity and clarity, do not write like this. But teenagers, brimming with unfocused youth, do speak like this. Thus Sager’s appropriation of this sentence structure lets the reader feel privy to the stream of consciousness Jesse undoubtedly follows in interviews and daily life. Additionally, Sager’s descriptions use unconventional comparisons that reflect the way the characters communicate about their world and each other. Thus rabbits leave behind “turds the size of Milk Duds.” Jesse’s eyes are “babe magnets,” the veins in his arm guitar strings. His eyebrows are “caterpillars” and he is always “going like this” to “get them, like, pushed into place.” Bumbling, well-meaning Steve is the Homer Simpson of the family. Most tellingly, Meryl and Steve are referred to by their full names when first introduced and then by first name, but while conversing with Jesse they are identified as Mom and Dad, again placing the reader in Jesse’s place.
While the structure and point of view of Sager’s scene reveal his skill as a writer, it is its intimate detail that expresses the depth of his reporting. These details, the privileges of immersion, bring the subject to life. Lee Gutkind writes that intimate details on people “may note the inflections in their voices, their elaborate hand movements and any other eccentricities,” and this is exactly what Sager does. Regarding the characters’ voices, this scene’s dialogue is rife with italics and drawn-out vowels to represent their peculiar emphases in speech, and even makes note of “Steve’s thick Boston accent” and “[Jesse’s] voice, a reedy tone, a clarinet.” As for eccentricities, Jesse’s long list include incessantly chewing Wintergreen Ice Breakers (Though not the blue kind), his habit of “going like this” to his eyebrows, and “absently cracking the joints of his fingers and his toes, or absently drumming on the table, or absently jazz-snapping his fingers, or, rather, absently attempting to jazz-snap his fingers.” While these details are superficial, they are the kind of observations one usually makes on friends or relatives only, and thus they impart a sense of familiarity and intimacy to the reader even though they were obtained second-hand. Sager also uses intimate details to make connections that the reader would not imagine otherwise. For example, he notes that “an old canvas hangs over the mantel.” A more casual reporter could only use this as setting detail, but Sager recalls that Meryl was “a fine-arts major, a huge mistake,” and that “after she graduated, she never painted again.” Thus the canvas “mocks her every day” and gives the reader a glimpse of a Meryl who made mistakes and rebelled against teachers who “had their heads up their asses,” in contrast to the surface Meryl of doting motherhood and PTA executive boards. Because as Walt Harrington says, the goal of intimate journalism is to portray people “not the way they say they understand themselves but the way they really understand themselves.”