Nina Romano earned an M.A. from Adelphi University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She is the author of four poetry collections: Cooking Lessons from Rock Press, Coffeehouse Meditations, from Kitsune Books, She Wouldn’t Sing at My Wedding, from Bridle Path Press, and Faraway Confections from Aldrich Press.
Romano has published two poetry chapbooks: Prayer in a Summer of Grace and Time’s Mirrored Illusion both from Flutter Press. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She co-authored Writing in a Changing World, and her new debut short story collection, The Other Side of the Gates, has recently been published from Bridle Path Press. More about the author at: www.ninaromano.com
Perhaps one of the most important elements in any writing is scene, whether it’s for memoir, screenplay, novel, or most especially for short story. A scene is a compact unit in the development of a story, novel, or play, a unique representation that propels the story or plot ahead, and definitely something other than the mere telling of a story through exposition—it shows us the story, like fast movie cuts and clips.
A scene is a complete, independent little episode, a tableau, an incident that contains characters with action and dialogue. To build a scene we need to see characters interacting, incorporating movement and speech, but also using the five senses: taste, touch, smell, see, hear, along with other elements such as feelings and emotions, perhaps what we know to be the sixth sense of a character, and even the inclusion of a symbol or token to evoke memory.
As an example, in describing Dennis Lehane’s abduction scene in Mystic River, what I remember first is the smell of the apple core left in the abductors’ car. Here is something so sweet and delectable—the apple, and yet it is juxtaposed with the horrific—an abomination—the abduction of the boy Dave by two sociopaths with vile intentions. By introducing the apple, Lehane has opened many arguments—including the loss of innocence and the first sin—the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise.
Scenes are components, little montages, not just in stories, novels, creative non-fiction, memoir, screenplays, theater plays—but even in poetry. Scenes achieve an important task, such as introducing a character, an idea, a decision, turmoil between lovers, tension, or they help build conflict. There is no complete story or novel without inclusion of the obligatory scenes that make the whole work. But the single factor that enlivens your scene and gives you the foundation to construct your work is change.
Scene: WWI, Wartime London, a bomb shelter: Visualize it—Air raid alarms. Sirens. The crowding of people going down the stairs of the Underground. A mother trips on her long skirt, loses the grip of a child’s hand. A sea of people shove her forward—the look of anxiety on her face as she screams the child’s name repeatedly, “Richard, Richard!” and forces her way through the crowd. She finds him. They embrace and now are huddled in the bowels of the bomb shelter with strangers, thrown together to be safe from the bombing and instead someone detects a poisonous gas leak.
Combat zone during the Vietnam War: A US Air Force Captain meets a French/Vietnamese girl doing volunteer work, serving Thanksgiving dinner at an American USO, and sparks fly between them. Strangers, wartime, food, drinks and maybe even a spy! Can’t you just see it developing? But it doesn’t have to be war to create a scene.
Scene: a Brooklyn apartment, 2014: Mary brings John a bottle of wine. He opens the door delighted to see her. He’s prepared dinner, but she doesn’t know he’s got an addictive personality and been off booze for months. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and been going to meetings, doing the 12 Steps. Mary goes to the kitchen, and since she doesn’t know these things about John, opens the bottle with the fancy opener she purchased at the store and tells him so—“A little gift for you, John.” Etc.
As the author you should give the reader the picture of what’s taking place, of what’s going on here—physically in that apartment kitchen—what’s also happening emotionally for one or both of these characters: their thoughts, the way John has the table set with daffodils, the tapers burning in crystal holders, the smells emanating from the chicken cordon bleu he’s baking, the messy counter with a half dozen spices, the way he puts his hands on her shoulders and tries to convince her he’s interested in her mind, not her body.
What do we need to make a scene work? What is the heart and center, the guts and energy of any scene? What do they require to be complete? It’s the author’s job to give us: description of place, time of day, weather, a character’s hair color and clothing in exposition, but in scene we get what the characters are doing and saying, through their senses. And the biggie for all characters, their wants, needs, motivations through cause and effect—all of these things get developed in scene, which is never static. Something must happen, transpire, alter—change.
Guest Post by Nina Romano
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