We’ve hit a stretch of hot, dry days here in central Ohio, each day like the one before it. The grass is brown, the trees are dropping their leaves, the sun blazes. I long for a variation in the pattern, something out of the ordinary, something to make me say, “Ah, here’s something different.”
Such is the lifeblood of scenes in a narrative. A good scene depends upon such dissimilarity. Otherwise, why have a scene at all. A character’s actions or words demand dramatization. We have to dramatize because something extraordinary has happened. This doesn’t mean some grand event like a death, a birth, a betrayal has taken place. The drama of our lives more often plays itself out in more subtle ways and through less monumental turns. A good writer can make much of the smaller details or the subtext of what characters say to one another. A good writer looks for the variation in the habitual that requires a scene in order to make its significance fully felt.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer two prompts to help you create a scenes which may belong in a fully rendered narrative, or perhaps to rewrite moments in a narrative already constructed. I imagine these prompts, with whatever modification you’d like to make, might work equally well in a piece of fiction or one of nonfiction.
- Your main character finds an object that someone important to him or her has hidden. What is that object and why does its concealment have a profound effect on the character who discovers it? Give us the internal thoughts of that main character. Then let the person who’s hidden the object enter the scene. Using dialogue and action and description, show us what happens between the two characters.
- Let your main character accidentally hear someone who matters to him or her say something critical about him or her, something that he or she could never have predicted. Write the scene between these two characters that takes place when they next see each other. Use an indirect approach by having the two characters engage in some sort of action—something mundane, perhaps, like planting a garden or washing dishes. Let the subtext of the dialogue convey the tension. Bring the scene to a climactic moment in which the main character confronts the other character about what he or she said.
The important thing is to always ask yourself why a scene is taking place. The answer is almost always because something out of the ordinary has taken place. Some moment in a life has suddenly become something unexpected, and now your characters will have to deal with it, or else to go to great lengths to avoid that nasty task, which, of course, applies its own sort of pressure. Scenes are built around tensions, and often those tensions arise because something unplanned suddenly presents itself.
As I type this, the sky has clouded over. Although there’s only the slightest chance of rain in the forecast, that cloudy sky is already something different. It catches my attention. It creates an air of anticipation. I wait to see what might happen next.