Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Scenes, Moments, Structure, and Pacing

Raymond Obstfeld begins his fantastic tutorial, The Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes by noting all the great "moments" we instinctively recall when we reminisce on a work. Specifically, he states, "...the more 'moments' a work has, the more powerful it is." And by moments, he means scenes.

I disagree, though not entirely.

As Obstfeld notes, we do not recall entire works; when we think of a work, we recall those powerful scenes which held the most impact - the "You complete me" moments. However, as I learned from writing music, you cannot simply chain together a string of great riffs, you have to have a progression - a build-up which not only makes those moments weight, but which either provide contrast to strengthen those scenes or provide some quality against which those moments can be compared. For the most part, this comes down to pacing.

The most effective way to illustrate this is through dialogue: One "great" line after the next is cheesy. Just think of all those B-raters you've seen in which the protagonist spews nothing but great one-liner after zinger after clever retort, usually followed by a "signature line" or catchphrase. Those movies are called "B-raters" for a reason, and that's sometimes the reason.

There are many factors to be considered when contemplating your story's structure and leading-up to a powerful, "money," scene can include one or all of them. Exposition (including characterization, relationships, history,; character interaction; establishment and reinforcement of point-of-view; setting, tone, and atmosphere; style; it is even acceptable - and sometimes best - to literally point-out the fact that what follows is a pivotal scene:

And then, he said...
That was when it happened.
I'll never forget the look on his face when...

That approach - the stylistic approach - can be tricky, even if nowhere near as direct as the examples given above, because you run the risk of disturbing the suspension of disbelief by authoritatively (authorally?) calling the reader's attention to the fact that what follows is important. For the most part, great scenes - while they must obviously be literally written - tend to just happen. Once you have one, it can be like lightning in a bottle, around which you can mold the rest of your work. Leading into a great moment is often easier once the Great Moment has been accomplished, and so becomes a bit of a puzzle to be laid-out backward from that point.

Pivotal scenes are those which form the main points of any writer's chart or outline, if he works in such a manner, but not every scene has to be pivotal to the story in such a manner. Great moments can be created in simple dialogue exchanges, clever writing or observations, and so on.

In thinking back on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, I remember the scene in which the "victim" was drugged and photographed, but I remember the writing itself more than anything else. That's telling, because the novel opens with the scene I remember; studies on memory have proven that people tend to remember the first and last items in a list more easily, thus it follows that this extends to larger works and other concepts. IOW, I recall the opening scene of the novel and the writing style more than anything else in the book. Generally speaking, this would not be a good thing, but Raymond Chandler is a god among men and I can recall the entire plot and many of its twists and turns, characters, and concepts with little more effort. Still, the opening scene remains the big "moment" I recall foremost whenever I think of The Big Sleep.

If you pack a piece with nothing but memorable scenes, clever observations, witty writing, and utterly meaningful dialogue, you run the risk of toning everything down by lack of contrast and pacing. Don't bore your audience with menial or unnecessary details and observations just to weigh a scene down with impact, but be sure to work those Big Moments into the greater tapestry of your tale so that, when they do arrive, they actually do mean something and don't seem forced. You have so many other considerations, this should rarely prove problematic.

A work consisting of nothing but one great scene after another is either a collection of vignettes or a cheesy piece of shit, but it's not going to be a good work.

© C Harris Lynn, 2010
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