Monday, June 13, 2011

Scenes are about change

Here is a line from near the beginning and another from near the end of a scene (this is from Middlemarch, btw):

Beginning: Rosamond colored deeply. "Have you not asked papa for money?" she said, as soon as she could speak.
 Ending: "Are we to go without spoons and forks then?" said Rosamond, whose very lips seemed to get thinner with the thinness of her utterance. She was determined to make no further resistance or suggestions.

What's changed? Scenes are about change, about what effect the events and choices have on the characters.  The change event here is that Lydgate (the husband) has confessed to Rosamond that they are in financial difficulties (because of his professional choices and her extravagance) and must cut back, even to the point of returning the silverware they had recently bought (hence her comment about spoons and forks). 

But the effect of this revelation is complex. Rosamond makes what she thinks of as helpful suggestions (ask Papa for help, negotiate with the creditors, move to cheaper area), and Lydgate kindly deflects each one, until she finally gives up and decides just to be stony-silent with him. She realizes that he doesn't respect her, and even thinks that if she'd known this before, she wouldn't have married him. So she starts out feeling all wifely and loving, and ends up cold and alienated.

So notice how the simple physical description shows the change. It doesn't show it directly, but notice what changes. Early in the scene, she "colored deeply"-- that is, she blushes. That is a "young" physical manifestation, and it emphasizes her as almost childlike (which is how he is going to treat her).

Then, in the end of the scene, her lips "thin". That's an "old" physical manifestation, and shows how, as a result of the events of the scene, she is no longer naive and childlike, but older, wiser, and more bitter.

That's just an example of how you can use minor physical description to set up a "before" and then show an "after" in the scene.

Can you think of other examples? What about a scene you're working with? What changes? How can you show this?

I've got a scene where two sort-of friends are alone for perhaps the first time, having dinner.  They start out as somewhat alien to each other, and end up kissing in the end.  I have the "end" physical manifestation, of course, that they kiss. Maybe to emphasize the change, I can show them physically -not- together in the beginning, like she deliberately takes a seat across from him rather than next to him, because they are, of course, not lovers yet. :)



Annette said...

Ooh, I just saw this post -- what an interesting topic to think more in depth about. It always amazes me to consider what layers of skill writers learn as their experience with the craft deepens. I probably wouldn't have even consciously thought of that "change" when I was newer at this (and even don't do it as much as I should now - sometimes it just happens without conscious thought).

I have a scene in my ancient Sparta historical fiction where my female MC had the horror of her baby euthanized (as was Sparta's policy for weak or malformed babies). Her soldier husband dealt with his grief in a very closed way and in addition went off to battle soon after without even telling her. (The men lived in the barracks until age 30). When he returns to her, wounded, she is still very hurt about his leaving. So I start out with them like this after she has nursed him through the night:


She awoke the next morning to him running his rough, callused palm down her thigh.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said. “I know I kept you up most of the night.”

“What I would have given to have been awakened by your touch over these last weeks.”

His hand stopped its slow, sensual glide. “You think I abandoned you.”

She stayed silent.

“I would never abandon you.”

She took a breath and told him what she’d kept inside for so many weeks. “You never came back for me like you’d promised. You left without word when I needed you most.”

His grip on her thigh tightened when she said it, then he took his hand away, leaving the place he had touched cold and naked. “Your brother has a death wish.” His gaze was challenging in its intensity. “Why?”


My point of the removal of his hand was to show that they can't share that little bit of intimacy until they work out their own separate hurts. At first he was ready for a more sensual closeness. But when he sees what she thinks, he's too hurt in return to be physically close like that. At the end of the scene she realizes he left urgently in order to keep her brother safe, so she wouldn't have the pain of losing her baby AND her brother. He did it to protect her. They talk it out. Now they can become close again. But at the end of the scene, it's not a sexual closeness, it's more of a comfort after talking about their terrible loss. So I have slipped this into the end after they've cleared the air:


She leaned against him, and he held her in the quiet of the morning.


I hope others leave their examples. This is great stuff to think about. I'm going to think about your scene for a bit longer and return with some thoughts.

Annette said...

Back to leave a comment about your scene with the sort-of-friends who end up kissing. That sounds like a fun scene to write.

Yes, physical distance at first, then coming closer totally works. I can also see your POV character in that scene perhaps noticing more general things in the scene in the beginning, maybe the ambience and such, and then zeroing in on more sensual or close details of the other person as his/her attraction mounts.

Edittorrent said...

Annette, I think that's it-- we need a physical manifestation of the emotional change. And we can trust the reader to get it!