Friday, July 27, 2007

Writing a Great Scene, Part II With Andrea Dupree

Andrea Dupree, MFA serves as the Program Director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop and interim Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Denver’s University College. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, 5280, Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation, and elsewhere.

She received her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston, and her BA in English and Political Science at the University of California, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

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.

In the first exercise, we looked at a scene from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’ll excerpt the first two paragraphs that we examined here:

“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 cafĂ©. 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?


Larramie said...

Do you really skimp on or tend to ignore description, Lisa? That's easy to do, especially if you feel the reader can fill in the blanks with their own imagination. OTOH, the dialogue exercise must have been incredible. It's true, people don't necessarily say what they mean and -- better yet -- they don't realize it. Conveying all that through dialogue must be a fascinating challenge.

As for what a character wants, leave me wondering. ;o))

Thank you for sharing all this, it's wonderful, thoughtful and fun.

Lisa said...

Description is probably the aspect of writing I learned the most about during the retreat. In my reading, I tend to gravitate toward narrative heavy books, but that are spare in their description. In writing that is "not so good" (IMHO)I am frustrated when I read description that tends to be gratuitous. I read Housekeeping and I read Augusta Locke (a beautiful novel written by one of the Lighthouse instructors, William Haywood Henderson), and both are novels where landscape really becomes a character in each story. The prose is excruciatingly beautiful in each case and descriptions, when rendered in this way are like a subtle trick that enhances the story. During an exercise last week, one of the other writers wrote a scene I wish I had a copy of. In it, a woman was on a hike in the mountains with her boyfriend/husband and was frightened and not enjoying it at all. Her descriptions of the mountains made them threatening and dangerous. Had she described them as beautiful and inviting, obviously the impact would have been totally different. In the writing I enjoy best, the authors manage to use description sparingly, but choose exactly the right words to suit the scene -- this is actually what Therese Fowler does in Souvenir.

Making use of subtext and gesture in dialogue -- although I've been attempting to do it all along (I seem to be much more focused on narrative and dialogue than description -- but not anymore!) is a lot of fun or me. I doubt married couples manage many discussions where subtext is not employed extensively! We know where the other's hot buttons are and learn how to get our points across without pushing them.

Shauna Roberts said...

This day's lesson sounds wonderful. I wish I could have been there with you to absorb it all first person.

What you said about subtext got me thinking about how my characters tend to be blunt and and not beat around the bush, just like me (you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl). You've inspired me to work on that aspect of dialog. Thanks!

Lisa said...

Shauna, I wish you could have been there too. The subtext discussion really got me thinking too. I think it's sort of a variation on show don't tell and it really is pretty amazing when you start listening to people and realize how much time we spend interpreting what other people say and I imagine they do the same with us.

reality said...

This is a great follow up post to the first.

The art of not saying; that is something I shall take away from this post. What a wonderful way to describe something that we ignore in our lives around us. And as such in our work.

On descriptions I am like you: I like narrative, but I hate reading descriptions or a lot of it. I even skim over them while reading or writing.
Here's the thing; my wife loves narrative description. She is a die hard fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy etc. and loves the way they keep on developing the imagery with words.
I guess what this means is; there is no formula for a good book. We need to find our own space and stories.
Thanks for the post.

Lisa said...

Reality, your comment inspired the post I just did on reading critically. After reading some books that are quite heavy on narrative description, I took away some ideas that I can incorporate into my own writing, although I'll use them more sparingly. What we like to read is such a personal choice that it reminded me how few people really enjoy each type of book. What I'm thinking now is that the more I study different types of writing, the more I believe my writing will benefit, but may actually appeal to a smaller number of people -- at some point, the decision on how to balance art with market appeal does have to be considered.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf