categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Okay now, you’re saying, I thought the “bad” in bad advice was ironic, but after reading your title I’m thinking maybe what you’re pushing here really is bad bad advice. And I will admit that maybe today’s title overstates a bit, and that I was trying to catch your eye…..But, I mean it. Or partly mean it. What I really mean is “Don’t Write Scenes Exclusively.”
As someone who has read thousands of workshop pieces, both fiction and non-, and who has read over a hundred theses, I can say that there is a certain sameness to the work. Not that the writing and themes and events aren’t wonderfully varied and full of both possibility and dazzling writing. It’s just that almost 99.9% of that writing is in one mode and that mode is the minute by minute, often second by second, dramatic unfolding of events that we have come to call scene. Somewhere along the line the “Show, Don’t Tell” police got hold of America’s young writers and scared them straight. Straight out of summary, exposition, condensed thought, essayistic pace, and idea. Straight out of the notion that time in a book can be manipulated, pushed in and pulled out like an accordion, so that one important event might take ten pages and another a sentence. And straight away from the idea that variety is one of the deepest pleasure in any art, and that reading back to back blocks of same-sized scenes does not constitute variety.
Let’s back up here for a minute. You better learn to write scenes. To write something unfolding in the equivalent of real time is one of the most vital skills a writer can have. And it’s one of the hardest to learn since you can’t really be lazy about it. Fred has to walk over to that table. Ginger has to throw that book at his head. And the reason “show don’t tell” remains such important advice is that the beginning writer is very resistant to taking us along during all the walking and throwing. To get anywhere then, a young writer had better master being able to write a good scene.
But let’s say you get this scene thing down, that you’ve mastered laying those bricks. Then how about jazzing things up a bit? What do I mean exactly? In no particular order I mean:
*What about starting into one of those scenes late and ending early, in effect, making the scene just the nut of the scene? And what about surrounding that nut-of-a-scene with the opposite of scene, say summary—beautifully written summary of course — of the four years before the scene?
* What about experimenting with a section of book or essay or story where idea, not time chronology, is the unifying factor? Obvious examples of this are Kundera, Roth, and Didion. In fact if you look back at early Roth it seems the real breakthrough came when he broke out of traditional chronology and became, in effect, a fictional essayist.
* If this is too radical why not just try practicing pulsing back and forth between summary and scene, in the manner of traditional 18th and 19th century novels? Who ever said condensed, thoughtful lines about human nature, and the nature of your characters, was against the rules?
* For non-fiction writers, and hell for poets too, why not spend a few lines of ‘graphs ascending into the realm of pure idea. I know it’s dangerous, and can blow up in the wrong hands. But why not try? You never have to even show it to anyone. I drove through the hometown of a poet yesterday who did almost nothing but this, and did it beautifully. Of course the ideas must have drama, and at its best this sort of writing dramatizes the way the mind works, the way it eddies and swirls and buffets against itself.
And that’s just for starters (written this rainy morning in a hotel room in Athens, Georgia with too little coffee.)
Become a master scene-maker by all means. Making little movies with words is a wondrous thing. Just remember that there are also other things words are good for.
So spread it around: Tell, don’t Show!