She received her MFA in creative writing at
And she is funny. She’s really funny, so of course I loved her sessions.
Andrea taught Writing a Great Scene: Part II at the Lighthouse Writers Getaway last week. The workshop complemented Writing a Great Scene: Part I, where we used movie deconstruction to analyze narrative structure. In this session, we analyzed four excerpts from great books and followed each exercise with writing our own scenes.
“After four days of rain the sun appeared in a white sky, febrile and dazzling, and the people who had left for higher ground came back in rowboats. From our bedroom window we could see them patting their roofs and peering in at their attic windows. ‘I have never seen such a thing,’ Sylvie said. The water shone more brilliantly than the sky, and while we watched, a tall elm tree fell slowly across the road. From crown to root, half of it vanished in the brilliant light.
Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere. That flood flattened scores of headstones. More disturbing, the graves sank when the water receded, so that they looked a little like hollow sides or empty bellies. And then the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system. The losses in hooked and braided rugs and needle point footstools will never be reckoned. Fungus and mold crept into wedding dresses and photograph albums, so that the leather crumbled in our hands when we lifted the covers, and the sharp smell that rose when we opened them was as insinuating as the smell one finds under a plank or a rock. Much of what Fingerbone had hoarded up was defaced or destroyed outright, but perhaps because the hoard was not much to begin with, the loss was not overwhelming.”
Andrea read the entire scene (a bit longer than this excerpt) aloud and then we read it to ourselves and noted the details. We noted the sounds, sights, smells, tactile details and sounds. We talked about transitions into and out of the scene and then we wrote for fifteen minutes. I wrote a scene for the new story I’m working on. This particular exercise was a particularly valuable one for me because detailed description is something I tend to skimp on.
In the second exercise, we read an excerpt from Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life to analyze the character arc. I won’t excerpt the scene here, but for those familiar with the story, we read the scene where the main character is given a .22 rifle by his mother’s boyfriend. The scene describes ever escalating desires in the character: first he wants the rifle, once he has it and isn’t supposed to handle it when no one is home, but just wants to clean it, then he needs to carry it around, eventually he’s aiming it out the apartment window at people and finally, he ends up shooting a squirrel. We discussed this scene in great detail and the idea of character’s wants and desires. We followed the discussion with a writing exercise and wrote about a character who wants something tangible very badly and either does or does not get it.
As Kurt Vonnegut said in his Creative Writing 101 Tips, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This is a great exercise and a great reminder to make sure that we’ve done that within our own work.
We then read the Ernest Hemingway short story Hills Like White Elephants. It’s a very short story and is a conversation between a man and a woman sitting in a train station café. What we can pick up from the dialogue – although it’s extremely subtle – is that the relationship between the two has changed, that she has become pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion, although he will not say so and she wants him not to want her to have an abortion. She will also not say so. It’s a wonderful example of the use of subtext. I loved this exercise. We talked about how frequently people really do say exactly what they mean and how uninteresting dialogue is when we don’t show this natural tendency for people to talk around things. We talked about how dialogue is not limited just to words, but is reflected in setting, gestures and silences. We followed the discussion with a writing exercise and wrote about an argument (real or fictional) between two people where the true feelings of the characters are not expressed.
Hmm – this was a great sanity check. Now and then, when we read a conversation where each character’s thoughts are clearly laid out it does seem a little contrived. Unless it’s a therapy session where each is honestly laying out thoughts and true feelings, we as human beings tend to rarely say what we’re thinking. It occurred to me that this is especially true within close relationships.
For this discussion about writing great scenes, we analyzed: sensory details, a character’s nature being at odds with his/her appearance, the art of not saying (or subtext) and changes through action. I think all writers tend to be stronger in some areas than others and prior to sitting through this workshop, I think I minimized the importance of thinking about each and every one of these aspects of scene. They’re all important and by looking back to these four exercises and doing a sanity check on scenes I’ve written, I’ve been able to improve them quite a bit.
Do you tend to skimp or go overboard in certain areas? What are you working to improve in your own scenes?