Scene Choice

Once I had a student writing a story set in 1887 to 1915 or so, in Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island. The author did copious research and handled many aspects of this job exceptionally well. Her novel dealt with both fictional characters and characters from real life, including some leading American suffragists. The author was incredibly tidy writer. I’d never seen manuscript so correctly punctuated and free from usage errors.

One of the quirks of the author’s style, however, was a tendency to dramatize very incidental events and in these scenes make allusion to the bigger events in characters’ lives, like past marital engagements and losses of family fortune. The monumental events never got depicted in-scene. They were only referred to in scenes where characters walked from their home to the park or sat in a salon visiting.

I advised reassessing scene choices.

Let’s say we have a character shopping for breakfast cereal, milk, and eggs. The cooler door handle is silver, and the foam egg carton squeaks in her hand, and something about the experience causes her to relate, in narrative passing, that she’d been the lead cosmonaut on the Space Shuttle Colombia.

Okay, extreme example. But this was the nature of it. In my student’s work, there were dinner parties and clashes at Tammany Hall, and good action, but there was a tendency to take refuge in a still moment to deliver important contextual information.

Maybe you find yourself thinking, What’s wrong with revealing during a shopping trip that a person had been married to a drunkard or was transgender or secretly wanted to be an orthodontist? Good point. If artfully done, character development executed this way can be brilliant. But the thing to avoid is giving over all your best lines and narrative energies, being most descriptive about the firmness of the avocado in Joan’s hand, having skipped the scene at home, the argument with Robert that led her to remove the wedding ring from the very hand holding that avocado!

Your readers want scenes about the stuff that lives at the center of a protagonist’s heart.

When the opposite happens, when scenes are about mundane things, it’s often because it’s much easier when drafting fiction to do our little marionette moves with our characters in manageable, less complex ways. We can move them about the store, showing things that provide verisimilitude (like the price of Irish cheddar). We can even feel accomplished as writers and have a jolly time inventing a person’s day and waxing eloquent with our opinions on low-carb diets.

But what are you avoiding by writing these dawdles and doodles, these low-stakes scenes? I’m guilty of this as well at times, and what’s usually going on for me is that I either don’t know what the character should do next, or I don’t know exactly what happened in the past.

It’s good to spend down time, chillaxing with our characters. The trick is to know when you’ve been doing it. What to look for? In revision and review, look for a scene where your character is alone, physically inert or inactive. An abundance of internal monologue is a hallmark as well. If your Editor hat is really on your head tight and you’ve abolished your writer’s ego from the room, you will admit to feeling a little bored when reading these scenes. There, in these pages, the character will speak to you in his or her way about a direction to follow. Odds are you should cut the dud scene entirely and begin anew by following the character’s suggestion.

For example, Jane, our hypothetical shopper, reaches for the yogurt, thinking of Hernando. Hernando always insisted on the low-sugar content stuff. 28 grams of sugar in a container of yogurt, he said, was outrageous. But Hernando is out of the picture, not talking to Jane, or perhaps dead or missing. What character is trying to tell you is often right there; in this case, a scene of a typical day when Jane brings home some high-sugar yogurt, and Hernando makes his preferences known. What happens there? Is he kind or cruel? Why is the high-sugar yogurt so threatening to Hernando?

Let’s say, for example, Jane drops something really big on you, like, “Just the sight of a jar of marinara sauce was enough make Jane wince. As a young woman, she’d fallen into a sick relationship with a violent Italian who ran drugs and guns out of a pizza place in Astoria.” This is a clear indication of where to go. We need a scene in that pizza place in Astoria. That’s where the action happened. Take us there.