Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Teaching Point: A Perfect Scene

We talk a lot about scenes in the craft classes.  It mystifies and perplexes us.  Many are so used to the busy patter of their thinking, they mistake that for a scene or think they can write:

Jerry walked into the room and sat down.  (Two passive verbs by the way) .... and then go into a long run of back story, exposition and never get back to the fact of Jerry in the room, or for that matter tell us what Jerry looks like, moves like, etc. 

A scene is a moment in time, when something happens.  One moment.  One thing.  It's active.  It moves on action.  You address what is happening in that moment and if you give back story...IF...it's about what is happening in THAT moment with the character.  Context...brief.  If you give exposition or go into internal spaces, again, it's brief.  A hint.  A flavor.

This poem by the truly brilliant Sherman Alexie does it all.  Look at his description of what happens and the percentage that is his own thinking in his own head. 

Crow Justice by Sherman Alexie

As I pump gas, a flock of crows passes
Overhead. Then another flock arrives,
And another, and a third, fourth, and fifth.
Jesus, the sky itself is made of crows,  (this is voice)
And they’re louder than the nearby freeway.  (5 lines of pure description of the moment)
Could this be a family reunion? 
Maybe these dark birds are planning for war.  (this is contemplation, his thinking)
Then, with one great hush, the flock goes silent,
And separates into living currents,
And forms winged rivers around a mid-air
Island of three quickly deserted crows.
Why? I don’t know at first, but then one bird,  (writer enters again with a tiny question)Much larger than the rest, breaks from the flock,
Quickly followed by other large, fast birds,
And leads a mass attack on the lost crows
And snap-snap-snaps their necks, and as they fall,
Tears them in half. As the crow-pieces hit
Hot pavement, the flock, as one, celebrates,
Yes, they celebrate, And I realize (he could have used description here to show me, reader, what crow celebration looks like, sounds like, but okay...we forgive this because, well, he's Sherman Alexie)
That I saw a public execution.
A murder of crows, indeed, but what crimes,
Among the crows, are punishable by
Death? I can’t begin to understand crow
Morality, Hey, I don’t want to try,  (now his summation of the the moment, in his own head)
But justice, like time, flies and flies and flies.

Look at the pacing, the percentages here.  25 lines.  9 lines are his thoughts in reaction to the moment he's shown us.  And only one is about "life."  That is a perfect way to gauge your own story telling.  9 out of 25 is about 1/3 of internal, the rest is external and pure reportage of ONE moment.

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