It’s a rainy day here in the Midwest, a perfect day for staying inside and doing. . .well. . . doing nothing. It’s the sort of day that doesn’t make good material for a narrative. A sleepy day with not much from which to make a scene. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, our narratives invite a reader along on a journey by presenting scenes of dialogue, description, history, action, and consequence. So on this rainy day, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on scene construction.
Consider, for example, the opening of this scene from Eric Puchner’s story, “Last Day on Earth,” as found in The Best American Short Stories, 2017: “We’re going to the animal shelter,” my mom said one afternoon. This line comes after an expository opening in which the characters’ circumstances are made clear. The father has moved out, leaving the mother to take care of the teenage son and the hunting dogs the father left behind. The mother’s line of dialogue about going to the animal shelter immediately gives the scene forward momentum. The next two lines allow us to situate the dialogue in a specific place while also dramatizing the mother’s state of mind: She was sitting at the kitchen table, holding a glass of white wine. I’d never seen her have a glass of wine before six o’clock. I inspected the bottle on the counter—it was half-empty, sweating from being out of the fridge. Clearly, the mother has been drinking wine for quite a while trying to decide whether to take the dogs to the shelter. Puchner uses these three sentences to give us the visual details of the scene that also characterize the mother. At the same time, they pace the dialogue, giving that pause before the narrator says, “What?” This isn’t an empty word. It’s filled with the narrator’s disbelief that the mother would consider leaving the dogs at the shelter. She says, “I told your father if he didn’t come get the dogs this morning, I was taking them to the shelter. I’ve been asking him for six months. It’s past one and he isn’t here.” The scene now makes clear what hangs in the balance:
“They’ll put them to sleep,” I said.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No one’s going to adopt some old hunting dogs. How long do they try before giving up?”
“Seventy-two hours.” My mom looked at me, her eyes damp and swollen. “Your father won’t deal with them. What am I supposed to do?”
Notice how the intensity of the scene increases. Then Puchner pauses to layer in some important exposition about the mother not being able to get rid of a spider without getting in on a piece of paper to take outside, and the father and his new girlfriend and how the narrator realizes the fact that his mother was needy, timorous, and duty-bound, and that’s what drove the father away. When the scene returns to dialogue, it takes an interesting turn. The narrator comes up with an idea that will buy him time while trying to decide what he might do to save the dogs: “We should do something for them,” I said, “before we take them to the shelter.” The mother is glad for the idea: “Good idea,” my mother said, looking relieved. “Where’s the happiest place for a dog?” The narrator says, “The beach?” The mother is pleased: “Of course. The beach. My God, I don’t think they’ve ever been.” The scene ends with the mother, the son, and the dogs on the way to the beach, and just like that Puchner has prepared the way for the next scene. He’s also set in motion a sequence of events that will have its consequences while also making it clear to the narrator that the mother has no idea what she’s going to do.
In a narrative something happens which causes something else to happen and on and on until the story finds its landing place. If we’re having trouble getting a scene underway, we’d be wise to follow Puchner’s example. Get the narrative moving quickly: “We’re going to the animal shelter.” Establish the context from which the proposed action comes. Offer up the necessary details that invite a reader into the scene while also establishing the characters. Put those characters at odds. One wants one thing and one wants another. Look for additional layers of the characters. The mother, who seems so set on going to the shelter when the scene opens, is actually relieved when the son offers the alternative of going to the beach. Let the action continue: At Grunion Beach my mother opened the glove box and fished out her old sunglasses. New scene, new action. Look for the complications to the original premise of taking the dogs to the shelter. Look for the surprises that emerge from the characters and their situation.