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Posted, Oct. 27, 2004
Updated, Nov. 1, 2004

QuickLink: A72434

Writing Tool #29: Report for Scenes
The scene is the most basic unit of narrative literature. Scenes put us there, and make us care.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Report for scenes; place them in sequence.

Tom Wolfe argues that realism, in fiction or non-fiction, is built upon "scene-by-scene construction, telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative." This requires, according to Wolfe, "extraordinary feats of reporting," so that writers "actually witness the scenes in other people's lives" as they take place.


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That advice was offered more than 40 years ago, but adherence to it still makes eyewitness storytelling seem new.

Baghdad, Iraq -- On a cold, concrete slab, a mosque caretaker washed the body of 14-year-old Arkan Daif for the last time.

With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif's olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif’s right arm and right ankle with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the back of Daif's skull.

The men in the Imam Ali mosque stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words of his father, was "like a flower." Haider Kathim, the caretaker, asked: "What's the sins of the children? What have they done?"

This is the work of Anthony Shadid, covering the war in Iraq for the Washington Post, practicing a form of immersion journalism, getting close to the action, capturing scene after bloody scene.

The scene is the basic unit of narrative literature, the capsule of time and space created by the writer and entered by the reader or viewer. What we gain from the scene is not information, but experience. We were there. We are there.

"As the atom is the smallest discrete unit of matter," writes Holly Lisle, "so the scene is the smallest discrete unit in fiction; it is the smallest bit of fiction that contains the essential elements of story.  You don't build a story or a book of words and sentences and paragraphs -- you build it of scenes, one piled on top of the next, each changing something that came before, all of them moving the story inexorably and relentlessly forward."

From childhood, we experience scenes everywhere. We get them from literature and news reports, from comic strips and comic books, from movies and television, from advertising and public service announcements, from our memories and dreams. But all these are mimetic, to use an old-fashioned literary term. They are imitations of real life. 

The best writers work hard to make scenes real. In one of the great scenes in dramatic literature, Prince Hamlet ( III. ii) directs the traveling players on how to create scenes so realistic that they will capture the conscience of the murderous king: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature." Anything exaggerated or "overdone," argues the melancholy Prince, takes away from the purpose of dramatic art, which is "to hold…the mirror up to nature." 
The mirror remains a powerful metaphor for the aspiring writer, especially the journalist. The reporter's goal is to re-create life, reflect the world, so that readers can see it, feel it, understand it.

The wind was so strong it blew the American flag stiff, knocked over rows and rows of folding chairs, and sent the black caps of high school graduates spinning along the ground like tumbleweed. From our seats in the bleachers, we stared west, hoping that another kaleidoscopic Florida sunset would add symbolic luster to this most American rite of passage.  But rain clouds roiled behind us.

As I re-read that passage I wrote in 1999 it transports me back in time to the evening of my daughter's high school graduation. I can say with honesty that the scene was really like that. And I believe that if I shared it with the hundreds of people who were there that night, they would testify on my behalf. "Yessir. That's how it was. You held that mirror up to nature."

But the job of the writer is not merely to capture scenes or compile them. As Tom French demonstrates in his writing and teaching, these scenes, these moments within scenes, must be placed in a sequence.

It may seem obvious that the most common sequence will be chronological. But scenes can be arranged in space as well as in time, from one side of a street to the other. Scenes can be used to balance parallel narrative lines, shifting from the perspective of the criminal to the cop. Scenes can flash back in time, or look ahead.
One of the most arresting stories to come out of the great Florida hurricane season of 2004 was written by Dong-Phuong Nguyen, a colleague of Tom French at the St. Petersburg Times. Set in Pensacola, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, the story records the poignant experience of folks returning to their neighborhood to view the destruction for the first time.

It begins from a distance with a simple scene:

They waited for days in the hot sun behind the patrol cars and sheriff's deputies, straining for any glimpse.

Because of the danger, authorities blocked their return. More elaboration of the scene:

They brought coolers and portable chairs. They joked about their fine china. They warned each other about using their hands to sift through the rubble because of the snakes.

In another scene they confront the sheriff:

          "Why won't you let us in?" they shouted.

Bulldozers clear debris from the neighborhood, and a sequence of scenes reveal the emotional, as well as physical, devastation:

The residents who had just been joking about what they would find walked along Grand Lagoon Boulevard in silence.

Five houses in, they began to weep.

Women wailed inside cars. Teenagers sat in the beds of pickup trucks with their hands covering their open mouths.

The camera moves closer.

Carla Godwin quietly walked down Grande Lagoon Court as neighbors lifted roofing from bikes and brushed off ceramic plates. "We don't even having a dining room table anymore," she sobbed. "I don't know where it is. It's gone."

A sequence of tiny scenes follows in this order:

1. A woman finds a television set in her bathroom. It is not hers.
2. The woman walks down the street looking for her neighbors, who cry out to her.
3. Another woman stands in the rubble of her house going through her stuff.
4. "'My cat is alive!' one man came screaming from his house."
5. Another man emerges from his house smiling, strumming his guitar.
6. A distraught woman is comforted by family.
7. A woman finds blistered photos of her babies washed up on a neighbor's patio.
8. A woman takes cell phone calls from other neighbors inquiring about their property.

These are moments of real life, drawn out from the news of the day, and ordered by a skillful young writer into a scenic sequence that gives them meaning and special power.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. The next time you work on a story, pay special attention to the scenes you are witnessing. Describe these scenes in enough detail that you can re-create them for the reader.

2. Dialogue is different from quotations (see Tool # 21: Quotes & Dialogue). As you report for scenes, keep your ears open for dramatic dialogue that can help readers enter the experience.

3. Try an exercise invented by Tom French. With a group of friends or students, view an interesting photograph or artistic portrait (French favors Vermeer). While these images are static, the writer must place details in an order the reader can follow. Write a scene describing each image, and compare your work with others.

4. Sequencing can be learned from careful viewing of film. Take one of your favorite movies and watch it slowly and carefully. Stop the tape often. Notice, perhaps for the first time, how the director lines up the scenes. How is meaning derived from the sequence? 

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