Conflicts combine to make up scenes. A scene is essentially a moment in time when people are in conflict with each other. To write a scene, you have to have three essential ingredients: time (a clock ticking), place (an intriguing, interesting setting), and action (two or more characters involved with troubles).
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
— EDGAR DEGAS
We know a scene by its shape: It’s a box containing a series of dramatic conflicts, delimited by time. A scene starts at a certain point in time—2:00 p.m. at Sally’s Boutique—and it presents multiple points of conflict:
a. Sally is ticked off because she dyed Bob’s hair green, which is what he asked for, but he doesn’t like it;
b. Bob’s wife is flirting with Sally’s fifteen-year-old son;
c. Sally refuses to refund Bob. The scene stops at, say, 2:20, when Bob and his adorable wife …
d. … storm out of the salon yelling, “We will ruin your business!”
When you change your location—the parking lot in front of Sally’s—you start a new scene, and that new scene will need its own conflicts. When you change time—picking up the story the next day, for example—you change scenes, and that scene needs its own conflict. Prose writers work exactly as film-makers and playwrights do: envisioning their work as a series of scenes. Time change? New scene. Location change? New scene.
A scene, then, is a dramatic unit. A scene is confined to a sequence of little conflicts that build to a larger issue. The scene starts at a specific time of day and moves through time, ending at or just after the moment of greatest intensity. The scene usually doesn’t change locations—it plays out, just like in a movie, in a specific place and time.
Let’s look closely at the structure of Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral,” beginning on page 119. The first two pages of the story are made up of backstory sentences. As the narrator waits for the blind man’s arrival, he reflects on his wife’s relationship with this man, their shared history. There is a conflict in the backstory—the narrator almost hears what the blind man really thinks of him, but the tape cuts off! The first two pages are not in scene—we aren’t told when this reflecting begins exactly—it’s just generally before the arrival of the blind man. And we aren’t given a stage set. Without time and place specified, we know we aren’t in a scene yet.
To find the first scene in “Cathedral,” look for the place and time that holds the opening conflict. It occurs when the husband says, cruelly, that he could take the blind man bowling. The scene establishes the ordinary world of their relationship—about to be radically changed forever by Robert. Notice the conflict: This man is not connected to his wife, or himself He is pretending to be funny, and really, he is scared to death—of alive things, of blindness, of closeness. But he doesn’t know any of this. That’s a powerful conflict. A lot is at stake. Is this guy, the narrator, going to ruin the visit? Is the blind man seriously going to have to interact with this rude dude? Is this guy going to live the rest of his life blind to the feelings of others?
That we are reading a new scene, scene two, is signaled by the words on page 122: “So when the time rolled around, my wife went to the depot to pick him up.” There is a time change. The narrator watches his wife assist the blind man. And then they enter, and already the scene is saturated with conflict: The narrator criticizes, internally, Robert’s beard. He hasn’t even met him yet, but he already dislikes him. The wife is laughing and happy out there in the driveway. So when the door opens, there is a lot at stake. The wife is happier than the narrator imagined she would be. This is going to be much, much worse than he thought. We see he is jealous. As readers, maybe we feel something like pity or empathy for “Bub.” Again, there are implications. There are things that could really go wrong here. Good authors always move us closer to unstable moments, moments of conflict, pain, or intensity. Track time and place to see where this scene ends. It’s on page 123, when the blind man fills the ashtray, and his wife empties it. The narrator is realizing he knows nothing about blind people.
The new scene, scene three, begins on page 123, with the words “When we sat down at the table for dinner …” New time. New place. The scene runs until the space break on page 125. The climax of the scene is when the narrator turns on the television. His wife is “heading toward a boil.” The blind man is very comfortable.
Label each of the scenes in Carver’s story by listing the conflicts in each scene: for example, “husband confronts blind man,” “tense dinner with the three of them.” How many scenes are there in the story? Note the start time and stop time, the setting, and the main conflict in each remaining scene.
A sketch can really help you see your scene. A sketch is your visual outline for what you want to accomplish on the page, and it can save you a lot of wasted time. Examine student writer Meghan Wilson’s sketch of a scene on page 364. Notice how she blocks out the main action, labels the main character, and clarifies her setting before she begins writing the scene. Much as an actor prepares to perform a scene, a writer “gets into character” before setting pencil to paper.
There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening. — DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
If you choose not to write the bulk of your story in scenes, you risk losing your reader. Scenes break your narrative into manageable chunks. Like periods in a basketball game, or innings in baseball, scenes give the piece structure so your reader knows where he is and where things stand. And, just as in a game, where many points or only a few are scored in a given period, a scene may contain one conflict or a series of conflicts. You will want to practice writing simple one-conflict scenes, as well as more complex multi-conflict scenes.
Read Brenda Miller’s “Swerve” (p. 118), Pamela Painter’s “The New Year” (p. 69), and Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” (p. 114). Try turning each piece into a four-panel comic. You can use just stick figures since this isn’t a drawing class. Divide a sheet of paper into four squares; then divide the story or poem into four key scenes. For each of the four key scenes in the piece, show the central conflict in that scene. Now try doing a four-panel sketch for a story or poem you might write.