On the plus side, having a house that affords me a front-row seat for the St Patrick’s Day parade every year means I never have to leave my sofa to see it. Then again, it means I have to endure the parade going by every year. For reasons I’ll get to later, I am not a parade person.
Last week I invited my writers’ group to write a scene centered around St Patrick’s Day. Curiously, everyone who tackled the assignment did exactly the same thing: they described a parade. The descriptions were excellent. Most were based on first-hand observation, always a good thing. They described the dancers’ flimsy dresses, the vehicles, and the floats. They gave details about who led and who lagged. What they didn’t give, though, was a reason why anyone should care.
Description, be it ever so accurate or finely written, is not a scene. It may be a component in a scene, but it’s not the whole thing any more than one spice can be an entire dish. At its most fundamental level, a scene is about the human element. A scene must advance the plot, but it must also evoke an emotional reaction.
One of the problems I have with parades is they force the viewer into a passive stance. You stand, usually in the cold and rain, and watch a line of people pass by. It’s a different matter if you are lucky enough to be part of the parade, because then you are engaged in the action. In the same way, an endless string of details will force your reader into passive mode. You must engage them in the action.
Hey, wake up!
You see, passivity is not a good thing. If you write about a parade, you must put a human being into the middle of it and give her something to care about. Now, we’re getting interested.
Put a second person in that scene and we’re engaged.
Create a conflict between the two characters… Now we’re cooking!
Imagine if, instead of just describing the parade going by, one of the writers had told you in the midst of the chaos a mother is searching for her missing child. Has the child just wandered off, or has he been kidnapped? Is he in danger? Now every part of that parade, the laughter, the crowds, and the music become a source of tension for the distraught mother.
Of course, this is a scenario, a situation that may develop into a short story or part of a novel. It’s still not a scene, though we’re getting much closer.
What does a scene need?
Firstly, a scene needs a specific time and place. The reader needs to be able to visualise what you are telling them. Showing us this scene takes place in the last fifteen minutes of the Titanic before it sank will resonate with your reader. Tell us that it’s springtime in Kells. Or, rather, show us what that looks like. The apple blossom is blooming and, thought the air is cold and often damp, the days are growing longer. Tell us it’s mid-morning on a Sunday and the church bells are chiming.
The scene about the mother looking for her missing child takes place in the middle of the St Pat’s parade, so it’s mid-March. If the entire scene follows the length of the parade, it may last a couple of hours. Anchor your scene in a specific time and place.
A scene should present a character trying to get something. It may be concrete: a new dress, for instance. Or more nebulous: respect, perhaps. Whatever it is, the reader should be in no doubt of what the character wants, and want to know what they’re willing to do to get it, and how they’ll react if they fail.
The thing the character wants must stay out of their reach until the end of the story. Imagine, for instance, the story starts with the mother searching for her son. Now, suppose in chapter three, she finds him safe and well. What are you going to do for the rest of the novel? Unless, of course, the story is really about her learning to trust the boy’s oldest sister who lost him in the first place. Again, that cannot be resolved until the end.
Your character must constantly struggle towards their goal. They may have small victories, but the big one is out of reach till the end. Or you may decide that they never succeed and they have to accept defeat and the consequences of that defeat.
Of course, in fiction, some scenes are reaction-based. The child has been found and the mother is too distraught to leave his bedside. Now we’re setting up the next scene: her marriage breaks down because she’s become so paranoid about losing this child.
Have your protagonist drive the action. In this case, the mother’s refusal to move past her panic will set the tone for everything that comes next.
Finally, the reader has to feel part of the action. They should be able to react to the character. Perhaps they sympathise with the mother losing her child; maybe later, they are frustrated with her for her inability to move on. You accomplish all of these things by showing us what’s happening, rather than merely telling us.
Choose your point of view character carefully. What if the story is told from the POV of the sister? Or the father? Or even the child himself? The great thing about writing, is it’s your parade.
Bring some movement, some dazzle, some emotion to your writing.
After all, what’s a parade without fireworks?