Writing the Emotionally Important Scenes

A Princeton professor I once read while for some reason I had no pen or device to record his name and the name of the article wrote that when we read a novel we are speeding up time as one book can contain may days, months, and years. But when we write, he said, we must slow time down to make the experiences of what we are writing feel real to the reader. I have never forgotten that lesson and when I teach classes such as Go Ahead, Make a Scene, I search for lessons that will help participants with this wonderful trick. This past week, I taught a day-long workshop and concentrated on the exercise I originally wrote about in 2003. I am reprinting the article again this week because the assignment I gave created ah-ha moments for those in the workshop. I remembered again how valuable knowing how to slow time down is to writers who must live life twice in order to write.

I had the good fortune of taking a class with master teacher Jack Grapes along with a dynamic group of poets, novelists, screenwriters, and monologue writers. Together we learned Jack’s method of enhancing writing and hooking readers into our stories and events. Now much of his teaching is available in his books Method Writing: The Four Concepts and Advanced Method Writing.

In a handout that Jack gave me permission to quote, he summarized a few things that helped us understand one of his craft lessons quickly.  He showed us how what he calls writing the “image/moment” fits in narrative structure (whether you are writing prose, poetry or scripts) and how to use it to create writing rich with emotional honesty:

From the handout:

The 4 Elements of Narrative Structure

Story is the whole narrative. Story doesn’t go into detail, but gives the readers the big picture. “The summer I spent with my father changed my life.” That’s story. “We rented a car and drove across country.” That’s story. All stories are composed of various events.

Events are a little like story; they’re just smaller stories within the big story.  Something specific happens in an event. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. What happened at the rental office is an event. The episode with the flat tire is an event. Each event is composed of moments.

A moment is a short span of time, less than a minute, usually a few seconds. Opening the door, lighting a candle, two lines of dialogue. There’s action, but it’s small. There’s no beginning, middle, end, just a suspension of time, framed by the action or lines of dialogue that bookend the moment. Like a piece of film, moments are composed of a series of still pictures, images.

An image is a still shot, a picture, a static description. The description of a room can be static. When that description comes within the bookends of the moment, it helps create tension.  Thus, the combination of IMAGE & MOMENT becomes the crucial building block of narrative.

We let what Jack said sink in, and we began learning how to incorporate the notion into our writing to create depth. When that description comes within the bookends of the moment, it helps create tension.  Thus, the combination of IMAGE & MOMENT becomes the crucial building block of narrative.  Moreover, Jack taught us, using image/moment in our work helps us stretch what happens in a flash of real-time into psychological time. This is valuable for helping the reader EXPERIENCE what the protagonist or speaker is thinking and feeling.  In Jack’s words:

You’re sixteen years old.  You’re sitting in your room, thinking about something that happened in school that day.  Your mother walks in, behind her your father.  She’s holding your diary in her hand.  She holds it out at you.  “Are you having sex?” she asks.  You stare at the diary, wondering if she read it all or just a portion of it, enough to find out a few things that would prompt that question. Your eyes go from the diary, to her, to your father, and back to the diary. A lot goes through your mind.  It’s only a moment before you answer, but it seems like a year. You’re experiencing “psychological time” as opposed to “real-time.”  How do you get the reader to FEEL what it’s like, how do you convey to the reader that moment in time?  You could tell the reader about it, say things like “time passed slowly,” “it seemed to last forever,” but that would only be TELLING, not SHOWING. The trick is to SHOW it.

Jack showed us how to expand psychological time to heighten the experience of the reader by visualizing ourselves as responsible to a director for a scene.  We had to take on the responsibilities of set designer, lighting engineer, sound engineer and costumer in addition to writer.  Before spelling out these responsibilities, Jack returned to the diary discovery image/moment he had described:

As you’re standing there, looking at your mother and the diary, you can see your closet in the mirror on the door, your shirts hanging on the hangers, the way the blue walls reflect the sun coming through the window. There’s the poster above your bed from a play you saw, etc.  As you give the reader these images, time is standing still it seems, but the reader is taking time to read the sentences, so for the reader, time is expanding, only it’s psychological time, not the real-time of the scene.

To do our jobs in visualizing and writing our image/moments, we would have to know and remember the seven elements of image/moment.  Jack listed them for us:

l.  The Set:  Give the reader one or more details about the background, be it a room or an outdoor scene.

2.  The Set Dressing: If a room, refer to a piece of furniture, the carpet, a lamp, paintings on the wall, etc. If outdoors, is there a tree, a barn, a skyscraper, a fountain, an automobile parked by the curb?

3. The Set Props:  These are little things, often trivial things and small object such as a pencil, a wadded up piece of paper, a penny on the floor. They may be connected to the story or they may be irrelevant to the story, but refer to some of them.

4. The Lighting:  This gives the reader a sense of mood. In addition to lighting, you can also refer to smells and sounds.  Is the lighting harsh and bright?  Dimly lit yellow, morning sun,

5. The Characters:  Who are the people in the moment and what do they look like? Include some detail about their faces or hands. When you describe something about the way another person looks, you end up giving a glimpse into what they’re thinking or feeling.

6. The Costume:  What are people wearing? Little details tell a lot. Mention what people are wearing–what kind of shoes, what kind of shirt.

7. Commentary:  What are you or your narrator thinking and feeling in that moment? What’s going through your mind and what feelings are aroused in you? This is different than exposition which is best kept to a minimum and can be included as background information before the moment begins or after it end because it will make the reader lose a sense of tension if it occurs inside the image moment.

“After a paragraph or so, you’ve stretched the real-time of the moment into the psychological time of the moment, which feels much longer.  Instead of TELLING you are SHOWING,” Jack said.  “Once you get the hang of this, you’ll be able to make the moment last as long as you want, depending on the importance of the moment.”

In our writing, we were to follow his instruction. “When you see the opportunity in your writing, set up a moment with a line of dialogue or a gesture. Close the moment with a line of dialogue or gesture. Between these bookends, stretch real-time, which may only be a few seconds, into psychological time by giving the reader several of the seven elements that make up image/moment.”

Jack sent us home with the assignment to write image/moments all week and come back to class prepared to read one of them.

Following are two of my classmates’ image/moment exercise results, fresh out of their journals the way they read them to class. You will see how very effective this approach proved for saying far more on our subjects than we might have imagined we could as we chose the moments we would open and close and fill in with as many of the seven elements as we could.

I have marked where each author opened a moment with a gesture or line of dialog and where she closed it.  As you read, make a note of how the author utilizes at least some of the seven elements Jack described between the opening and closing of her image/moment.

Tonya Bates:  The Club

We were on the road, again.  Anchorage, Alaska in July.  It never quite got dark, just dusky, and the only way a non-sleeper like me could sleep was with total block-out shades on the windows.  Unfortunately, in the rooms we stayed in, the shades seemed to always be torn or ill-fitting, and by 2 AM daylight was creeping in.  First, semi-consciousness then a bleary consciousness of gray surroundings, then my weary brain started ticking, making lists.  My legs would start to twitch and the bed become uncomfortable and by 3:30 AM my day had started.  The bad news was, my husband was a musician whose evening wasn’t ending until 2 or 3.

It was July 12th, my sister’s birthday.  Jeff had walked with me back to the room at about midnight.  His set was over and he was talking about calling it quits for the night.  I longed to crawl into bed with him, maybe make love and then fall into an exhausted sleep spooned together.  Once again, he was cold, distant.  We talked through the set as usual, Jeff analyzing every riff, angry with the bass player for driving the rhythm a different way than they had rehearsed.  He flopped into the one chair in the dingy room, his mind reviewing every song.

I peeled my smoke-permeated clothes off and quickly showered off the smells of the club, pulled a sleeping shirt over my damp body and walked into the bedroom.  Grabbing Jeff’s hand I tried to playfully pull him into bed.

“I can’t sleep so early,” he said and crankily pulled his hand away.  “I’m going for a drink. I have to deal with this.”  I was exhausted and freshly showered, and not at all interested in going into the smoky club again.  As a newlywed, I just wanted to cuddle with my husband and go to sleep.  He walked out, pre-occupied with the music as usual, saying he would be back after a drink or two.

By 2:30 I was starting to get antsy.  Jeff wasn’t back, sleep wasn’t happening and my heart was racing.  I hated dingy walls, gritty eyelids and loneliness.  This life wasn’t what I wanted.  The bitter lack-of-sleep bile growled in my stomach.  Pulling on jeans and a jacket, I went to find Jeff.  At first I thought no one was in the club except the bartender.

“Hey, Frank, have you seen Jeff?”

The smoke still hung around the walls, and the stale smell of cigarettes, flat beer and booze hung in the air.  What served as stage lights were still directed on the band equipment behind the dance floor, leaving the rest of the room in dingy darkness.  I rubbed my face, closing my eyes for the seconds it took to adjust after the fluorescent lights in the hall. Frank continued to wipe the bar, his face an odd blank, not responding with his usual joke or flirt.  I thought we were alone, but then [Tonya opens the image/moment with movement in her peripheral vision.] a movement in the corner caught my eye.

Eight or 10 tables with chairs askew and dirty tablecloths separated us.  Bad Musack played from tinny speakers overhead.  Half-empty glasses and full ashtrays sat precariously on several tables.  The filthy carpet was a swirl of browns and reds.  I saw Jeff’s black jeans hanging on his skinny butt and his black leather jacket facing someone who leaned against the brown wall.  They were really close.  His thick brown curls drooped over his shoulder.  Then hands cupped his butt and pulled him closer into the hidden body.

At first, my brain failed to register that the hands on his ass were male, but it was obvious he was pressing, pressing groin to groin against this person leaning against the wall.  His head moved slightly and in the darkness, I focused on pale skin, a newly shaved buzz-cut and three earrings in the guy’s left ear.  He slipped his hand up under Jeff’s shirt and pulled him closer as their faces merged.

The bile in my belly crept up and threatened to choke me.  I thought I said, “Jeff”, but no sound escaped my throat.  I stepped toward them, bumped into one table, then turned and bumped into another as I stumbled blindly, not knowing which way to go.   Frank was there out of nowhere, wrapping me in big arms before I lost balance.

[Here Tonya closes her moment with a snippet of dialog.]“I knew you didn’t know,” he said, steering me away, out into the hall.

Deborah Gaal’s “Weekend at Père Marquette”

When my children were about 14 and 12, Steven and I went on a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend with about 30 other couples.  It was a YPO, Young President’s Organization event (I was the member) and there was a scheduled resource.  A psychologist couple would lead us through a 3-day communication exercise meant to increase our intimacy and deepen the marriage.  The idea of the exercise and the weekend was that there should be no holding back.  You would learn to be able to say anything to your spouse, as well as other important people in your life.

Steven was really enjoying the session.  You got to be touchy, feely with everybody at the conference, and he was having intimate conversations all over the place.  He loved communing and touching and hugging in large groups, particularly the female members of the group, so the agenda was right up his alley. Many of our close friends were other YPO members and were in attendance, which helped make the weekend an extremely satisfying, emotionally freeing experience for Steven.  He was buzzed.  At one point his tears were flowing freely as he talked openly (and unsolicited) to the group about how lucky he was to have such a great family.  I remembered feeling that he was a little bit of a shmuck.

We were in our room packing to go back home, and he was still feeling the warm effects of all of this communication and goodwill. I was sitting on the bed, packing.  [Deborah opens her moment with the following gesture.] He sat down next to me and placed his hand on my knee.

“I need to talk to you”, he said.  “I’ve been wanting to tell you this for a long time.  I’ve been in a relationship with another woman for 11 years.  She’s also happily married.  Having this relationship with her makes me realize how much I love you.  You have always been my priority, and you always will be. I’m so lucky to have you.”

I looked around the room at the evidence of our romantic weekend.  There were a dozen red roses on the table (sent courtesy of YPO), starting to fade slightly.  A couple of the stems were bent at the head, bowing, like the roses were embarrassed to witness the scene in front of them.  The half-drunk bottle of champagne and 2 fluted crystal glasses were standing at attention.  The bedsheets were crumpled, no longer crisp and fresh.  There were wads of Kleenex strewn on the carpeted floor next to his side of the bed.  Remnants of his latest allergy attack in the middle of the night.  I studied him.   I had never noticed before how Steven was looking every bit of his age.  His skin looked slightly yellowish and was beginning to sag around his face.  His chin looked almost receded, not completely yet, but you could see the direction where his face was headed. He wasn’t going to be a distinguished-looking man with a strong face and graying temples.  He would have deep folds around a thinning face with no strength or solid line to it.  No character.  His blue eyes were too gentle and they were imitating innocence, staring at me waiting for the response; waiting for kind words of forgiveness and absolution.  “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned”, those eyes were saying.  They were asking forgiveness but not really from me, from someone or something else.  He needed to blow his nose again.  It was starting to drip.

I looked down at his hand on my knee.  How delicate his hands were.  Small, slender, no calluses, no evidence of hard work.  They were a woman’s manicured, weak hands. I didn’t want them touching me anymore.

There was no air in the room.  The thick red velvet drapes were still closed over the windows, making the room dimly lit and creating a feeling of heaviness.  It felt muggy, which was odd in February.   I needed air and sunlight.  I wanted to get out of that space.

[Deborah closes her moment with the following dialog.]  I looked back at my husband.  “If I’m your priority, then you will end it”, I said.  “Now, let’s go home.  I miss my kids.”

I said nothing more.  Just continued packing in silence, trying to rush my way out of the room.  Carefully checking, opening drawers, keeping myself busy with the task.  I would make sure that I had everything. I would leave no lost items except the piece of myself that would be left in that hotel room, forever unclaimed.   In the car on the way home, I declared silently, wordlessly, “The marriage is over.”  I would not tell him.  I was practiced at leading a secret life and I would continue.  No one would know until I was ready.  No one would know until I got my children out of high school and had myself on financially sound footing.   I would pour myself into my work.  I would work like a dog to buy my eventual freedom.  I would become a practiced stoic until the day that I would pick.  Until the day that I would decide was the right day for me to say to him… “I’m leaving you.  I don’t need you.  I won’t have you.  Get Out!”

If you want to try your hand at writing according to Jack Grapes’ numbers, think about something you’ve had trouble writing about.  Imagine some of the events of that story.  Then think of a moment inside any of the events.  In your writing, don’t worry about set up. Instead, open a moment from inside any event, write your way through the moment using many of the seven elements, and then when it feels right, close the moment. Read over what you have written.  You will notice the deeply-felt and deeply-experienced nature of your writing, and you may be astonished at how much you said on the page, how interesting it is, and how easily you did it.

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Writing the Emotionally Important Scenes — 11 Comments

  1. Man! This came at the right time. I printed it, stapled it,and put it on my to-be-read pile on my reading table next to my chair, and forgot about it until last night (09.05.19:2100), when I saw the corner of it sticking out from under two magazines that were piled on top. PJ had already turned off her light and was in the other part of the house getting ready for bed. I ran my finger up the lighting strip. Holding the seven-page manuscript in my hand I figured this would be a good bedtime story. I kicked off my sandals (again), eased my chair back to a 45° angle, and begin to read. I came to the familiar, all CAPS words, SHOW don’t TELL nodding in agreement. And then the list of seven elements. By Item 3, I moved my chair up to a straight sitting position, turned the page, took another sip of my ice water and red items four, five, and six. By the time I got to item 7(Commentary), I was ready to jump out of my chair, fire up my computer and scroll to the most recent scene my WIP tentatively called THE HOGAN. However, I knew that I was too tired, so I did the next best thing: I carried your manuscript into the computer room and propped it up on top of the keyboard. I couldn’t help but see it the next morning. Now, at 0500, I have a fresh glass of ice water (with 11% humidity and 103° temperature each day one has to start hydrating immediately.) I read the rest of your article. Then I open up my file, scroll to chapter three, read my last line: “I see you’ve entered the world of living Professor Slaughter. My wife, Ajei’s coffee should perk you up.”
    I wake up Dragon and begin writing.
    Thanks Sheila!

    • Thanks for this, Sam. Ice water and recliner and early morning writing and all you have me smiling and smiling at how the article inspired you. It’s a powerful way of thinking about building scenes! And what does Ajei’s husband take in in that moment after he offers Professor Slaughter the coffee?

      • (I dropped the Professor) “Yatahey, Mr. Slaughter. I see you’ve entered the world of the living. Ajei’s coffee should perk you up.”
        Hiker Man looks up and gives Henry a confused look, raising his eyebrows. “Mr. Slaughter? Where did you get that name? Is that who you think I am?”
        Reaching into the pack, Henry removed the sketchbook and laid it on the table in front of Hiker Man. “Do you recognize this book?”
        Hiker Man looks at the name printed on the cover, shrugs his shoulders, and begins carefully turning the pages of the book. The first three pictures are pen and ink renditions of a valley. He stopped on the fourth page which has a partially completed watercolor. He stares at the painting. He looks up at Henry smiling.
        “These are pictures of Monument Valley. Whoever did these is quite good.” He hands the book back to Henry.
        “You don’t recognize the artist who did this?’
        “No. Should I?”
        Henry reaches down and picks up the pack, placing it on the table. “Maybe you should look through all the items in this pack. Maybe you will find something that you recognize.”
        Ajei pours some coffee for Henry and refills Hiker Man’s cup. As she does, he looks up at her and says, “You said I was your art teacher? Where was this?”
        Ajei sits across from Henry and Hiker Man. She is wearing a Columbia blue and maroon velvet blouse with white trim. There is a yellow pin the shape of a hornet attached on her right collar. “Do you recognize these colors and this hornet pin? You were my art teacher many years ago at Ganado High School. These are the colors of our school, and this pin is our mascot: the Hornet. We were the Ganado Hornets.”
        Hiker Man wrinkles his brow and says, “I’m truly sorry. That is a beautiful blouse, but I do not remember Ganado High School or ever being in school, let alone teaching art.”
        Hiker Man turns toward Henry and hands him the sketchbook. “But I do remember the taste of coffee, and this coffee tastes great.”
        (From here, I’ve added 1600 more words. I’m on a roll! Cheers, Sam

    • Yes, you are on a roll and have brought their interactions to life as you rely on the props and set dressing available, or as the fiction writer Ron Carlson would say, you’ve provided inventory for your story, inventory you can use as you move along.

  2. I can relate well to both stories. I felt I was going through the same things they were and it inspires me to try to write with less judgement, keep the pain, but not the judgement about it. I tend to express my anger when writing stories but that, I can see now, detracts from a good story.

  3. Well worth the wait after the glitches; I very much like the specifics of what the post of Grapes’ dissection of scenes offers (a phrase I’m calling this) and the two samples are both
    wow and whoaa with characters, dialogue, show not tell, smells, sights, touch, even taste.
    2 great selections, Sheila, with this smart post.

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