Implied Scenes

Posted on June 18, 2012 by

Unless you have been living in seclusion up until now, actively avoiding all forms of writing advice and instruction, you should have encountered the phrase Show, don’t Tell. The question of writing in scenes, (rather than simply summarizing some character action) falls under this Show, don’t Tell umbrella.

(If you want the larger picture on this idea of Show, here are links to a couple excellent entry points:

http://fictionmatters.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-workshop-show-vs-tell.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell )

For the moment, though, I’m going to home in on the idea of scene writing for two reasons:

  • In my reading of hundreds of student manuscripts, I have found that the most frequent beginner problem I encounter is writers who summarize the key moments of a story, rather than dramatizing them.
  • It is my passionate belief that summaries are almost never stories: they do not succeed artistically or commercially. It may not feel entirely comfortable at first, but if you are serious about learning to write fiction, you must learn to write in scenes rather than just implying that they’re happening.

Let me start, first, by addressing a question that will inevitably arise in some of your minds: do I mean that you should never summarize–that every single word of your manuscript should be devoted to real-time action? Of course not. Quick mentions of certain types of story information can be revealed to readers if they meet a few criteria.

  • They must be important enough to merit inclusion at all–in other words, they are not so trivial that they ought to be cut.
  • They’re simple details, things that can be conveyed fast and elegantly.

Here are some examples of perfectly legitimate “tell” sentences:

  • She wrestled with the question of clothing and settled for her most conservative suit. (This shows “she” has a meeting, but isn’t quite sure to expect.)
  • Dithering about which route to take made him late. (The dithering doesn’t matter; the tardiness is what is important).
  • Ma’s attitude when she saw him off was frosty; there would be a scene at dinner. (This is a promise to the reader that there will be some conflict, onstage, at suppertime.)
  • They had spent six years competing for a promotion… (Obviously you aren’t gong to play out all six years of cut and thrust. Equally obvious, I hope, is that whatever is happening now is the key moment in that conflict.)
  • He had bluffed his way through the last bounced chck, and sweet-talked that collections guy yesterday. (Here what’s established is past character action, setting up what is probably going to be a failed attempt to get away with it the third time.)

See how each of the above examples is setting up some action to come? The meeting, an event that some poor fellow is late arriving to, a parent-child fight in the evening, work conflict, and so on? Summaries of this sort can be used to get readers to the meat of the story–the important thing. And that important thing–to belabor the obvious–is the scene.

Contrast the above sentences with ones where the quickly-referenced action is obviously important:

  • She wore her most conservative suit to the meeting. . . and everyone showed up naked, causing her considerable embarrassment.
  • They had a relationship-shattering argument about which fork in the road to take.
  • Everything he had fought for for six years came crashing down in flames when Ms. Jones brought the stolen Powerpoint presentation to the meeting. Nobody believed it was his work. She got the promotion and he got fired.

The above examples describe pivotal events within your conflict–events that should unfold as we read. We want to hear every word of that relationship-breaking fight, and be there in the room when ‘she’ is the only person there in clothes.

What are the characteristics of implied scenes?

  • Generally, they are short.
  • They reference character interaction but have little or no dialogue.
  • They address important choices, character actions, or conflict in a few sentences.
  • They may tell us what characters are doing or feeling, using s/he felt, s/he thought, or I verbed-type sentence structures.
  • They have little in the way of sensory detail or setting description.
  • In tone, they may sound a bit like a somewhat dull book written for younger readers.

Here’s a somewhat longer example based on a classic horror situation:

Halfway there, they argued about which fork in the road to take. Bob favored the shortcut; Jane wanted to stay on the road clearly marked on the map. Bob teased her for being scared of the short-cut, which was creepy looking. Feeling embarrassed and hurt, Jane let him have his way.

The first thing to notice about this fork in the road tiff is that it is a plot point. Obviously, this choice is going to have consequences further into the story. (If it doesn’t, then the whole thing is a waste of a paragraph.)

Second, there’s character conflict going on in it, which is potentially interesting.

The third is how little we learn from the above passage. The fork is described as creepy. Jane is sensible but a bit wimpy, and Bob is, perhaps, a bit mean.

Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not bad. Anyone who’s seen a few crime dramas or suspense/horror films can easily fill in the blanks, right? This scene always plays out the same way.

But you aren’t writing, I hope, simply to encourage our audiences to cobble together a story out of remembered bits of their late night TV viewing. You want to put them in the car with the quarrelling couple. You want to raise the hairs on the backs of their neck when Jane peers down the shortcut. Maybe you even want to play against their expectations.

So how do you do that. . . especially if you are still trying to get comfortable with scene writing?

Step One: Talk it Out. This may seem awkward the first few times you try it, but the simplest, most mechanical approach for getting into scenewriting is to start with dialogue–write it like a script for a radio play.

Bob: Hey, there’s the shortcut I mentioned.
Jane: It’s not on the GPS.
Bob: Come on, I know where I’m going.
Jane: My experience with shortcuts is they take longer and the roads are worse.
Bob: Who was going 90 a minute ago? You said being late would be a disaster. Why are we late now? Because you hit the speed trap.
Jane: Exactly. Haste makes waste. Going off road now, down some. . . there aren’t any lights or signs.
Bob: Honey, it’s daytime.
Jane: For now. And look, up there . . .
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
Jane: Gopher? That carcass is huge! Whatever it is, it probably would show up on satellite.
Bob. And it stinks, granted, but if you’d just put it in the rear view…
Jane: Fine, have it your way!

My point with the above example isn’t that it has the depth and subtlety of Shakespeare. What the above does have going for it is conflict and immediacy–it is playing out as we read it, in other words. Even without description, dialogue tags or action, it is already more specific than the summary.

Left with the summary and informed by the tropes of television and cinema, a typical reader will put the man in the driver’s seat and set the stage at twilight or night. Instead, we have a brightly sunlit strip of road with a mangled corpse of some unknown, largish animal on it. What’s more, the woman arguing against the short cut is literally in the driver’s seat. If they take the ‘bad’ fork, the responsibility rests with Jane, not just Bob. For good or ill, just putting words in our characters’ mouths has moved at least a few paces away from standard Hollywood fare.

Step Two: Flesh it out. Writing just the dialogue for a scene puts the characters onstage and gives you the bones of the conflict; now fill in the rest. This isn’t a radio play, after all, it’s prose fiction. So start with those details that aren’t delivered elegantly in conversation.

Let’s tweak a couple lines.

Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–

“Gopher?” Jane said. “That carcass is huge! ”

She was right–in fact, whatever it was was probably big enough to pick up on satellite. A deer? Moose? Bear? Hair and hamburger, warming in the sun, and all of it obscured by a shifting murder of crows. . . Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s make up our minds one way or the other, okay? Whatever it is, the smell’s getting in the car.”

What have I done here?

I’ve added dialog tags, correct punctuation, a little description and some sensory details: namely fur, birds and stench. If I was to go through the entire scripted conversation, making the same changes, I’d have transformed this exchange from a summarized bit of action into the fully realized scene it obviously wants to be.

Make sense? Want to add your own two bits? You know what to do.

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