Scenes are the building blocks of a story. They advance plot and get characters from Point A to Point B. But instead of thinking of scenes as inflexible tools or fixed things to be pushed into a strict sequence, take a moment to be present and think about what you are actually doing. A scene is a building block, yes, but when you’re writing a story you are dealing with characters, and characters are not inflexible. They’re complicated and messy, and a scene that doesn’t acknowledge that fact and work with it is doing its story a disservice.
I’ve not long finished reading Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. This is the first book I’ve read by her, but right from the first page I understood why people rave about her. The writing is sharp and authentic in a way that feels completely natural, and Rooney does the thing that elevates writing from good to great—and that is writing about what’s actually happening.
That sounds really obvious, I know, but consider this very early paragraph from Conversations With Friends where the narrator, Frances, is looking at photographs of a dinner party she attended:
Melissa herself didn’t appear in any of the images. As a result, the dinner party depicted in the photographs bore only an oblique resemblance to the one we had actually attended. In reality, all our conversation had orbited around Melissa. She had prompted our various expressions of uncertainty or admiration. She was the one whose jokes we were always laughing at. Without her in the images, the dinner seemed to take on a different character, to go spinning off in subtle and strange directions. The relationships of the people who appeared in the photographs, without Melissa, became unclear.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
This paragraph comes after the narrator, Frances, has been to a dinner party with her ex-girlfriend, Bobbi. Their hosts were Melissa, a writer and photographer, and her husband Nick. Already it’s clear there is going to be tension between Frances and Bobbi because of their past, but introducing Melissa’s magnetic personality heightens this even further. Bobbi is enthralled with Melissa, but Frances is warier because she knows what it’s like to get swept up in someone else’s nature. There is so much going on here, yet if you presented this scene visually, it would just look like Frances examining some photographs.
Rooney doesn’t just describe the atmosphere; she talks about the emotional underlay to the scene, the network of tense interpersonal elements that link the characters. There’s a big difference between describing tension through character actions and going through the first layer of action and dialogue to what’s really happening underneath. This is complicated because when you do it right you’re juggling every character’s inner world with all of its nuance, limitations, needs, and desires. This is the question to ask: what is every character bringing to the scene? Work that out and then you can consider how that is going to affect the scene’s outcome. It’s a common writing rule that every character wants something, but what isn’t so common is applying that rule to every character, no matter how secondary, in every scene they’re in.
Every character is going to bring their own baggage to every scene they’re in. Every character is going to enter a scene with a certain expectation of what’s going to happen. What that baggage is and what those expectations are will determine how the scene plays out. If you can tap into that energy and talk about what’s happening beyond Bill passing Jane the salt and Jane filling Bill’s water glass too high, you’re going deeper than the superficial and expected way of crafting a scene. Bill passes Jane the salt because he is tired of her bland cooking and wants her to realise what a difference proper seasoning makes—and how much he wants a change from the stale and ordinary way of life she provides. Jane fills Bill’s glass too high because she knows he is unhappy but doesn’t know why and is too scared to ask, so she tries to reassure him of her love by giving him the sustenance she thinks he needs. Both Jane and Bill have brought their own desires and problems to the dinner table.
In a way, this is an even deeper level to the granddaddy of writing rules: show, don’t tell. Instead of talking about Jane’s raised eyebrows and the colour of the wallpaper as a way of showing atmosphere, you’re showing the inner machinations of each character’s subconscious—machinations the characters themselves may not even be aware of.
I have read books where this is engaged to ridiculous levels. Every tiny interaction becomes fraught with symbolism and possibility. A cigar is never just a cigar—it’s a reminder of the protagonist’s relationship with their mother, their uncle, their godmother. The protagonist sees socks drying on the line and reads it as their inability to have a baby, which they think is because they lost their little brother in the park twenty years ago and now their body knows they’re incapable of looking after children.
As with every rule in writing, there are limits to the usefulness of describing all of the details in a scene. But, even if you prefer a sparser approach, I don’t think you can go wrong by keeping this technique in mind. Every character has their own world inside them, and they’re going to bring all that history and backstory to every single scene they’re in. Move beyond the salt and water, and think about what everybody really wants.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.