Putting a Scene Together
It all starts with conflict. That’s the key element in every scene. It’s the reason the scene exists in the first place, so for me, it makes sense to build scenes around it. Whenever I sit down and plan a scene, I start by identifying the central conflict that’s going to occur.
In this scene, Linn has arrived in town only a short time before. She intends to conduct a bit of business and return to San Francisco as soon as possible. In this scene — as with others in the story — Linn believes she is far superior to the “simple folks” in Brookfield.
As the scene begins, she’s already rented a wagon and is driving toward her parents’ farm. There was no real conflict involved in renting the wagon, therefore no need to show that happening.
In developing this scene, I looked first at the conflict that would happen. Linn is going to have a somewhat unpleasant encounter with a former friend, Polly Washburn.
Here’s the moment at which that happens:
“Why, Linnie Mae Sparks! Is that really you?”
This is the central conflict, a sudden change that disrupts Linn’s intentions. It’s a single line of dialogue that upsets Linn for a lot of reasons, although I don’t spell them all out.
In this scene, Polly’s appearance takes Linn by surprise. To keep her off-guard, I made sure she was busy tending to another problem — an argument with a stubborn mule.
“Now, listen, you stubborn old thing, I’ve got a notion to send you to the glue pits if you—”
Once I’d identified the central conflict of the scene, I considered Linn’s immediate reaction. I used a negative word to describe Polly’s voice, and showed Linn’s surprise.
At the sound of the squealing voice, Linn let go of the mule and whirled around.
Basically, what I did was to write the middle of the scene first. I don’t like to get too far ahead of myself, though, so next I thought about when, where, and how the scene would begin.
I used a quick summary to reveal that information:
A short time later, she climbed aboard a rented wagon, lifted the reins in her hands, and slapped them over the mule’s broad back.
That’s the beginning. What about the ending? Just when and how should a scene end? Scenes come to an end when they’ve served their purpose. I had several reasons for writing this particular scene. I needed to introduce Polly to the story, continue building on Linn’s negative attitude toward the people of Brookfield, and, in general, make Linn as uncomfortable as I could. Once I’d accomplished those goals, it was time to end the scene with Linn driving away:
Looking straight ahead, she took hold of the thick leather reins. The old mule must have sensed Linn’s desire to move on. The wagon lurched forward.
In between the beginning and the end, a lot of things can happen within a scene — in addition to the central conflict in the middle. Usually, there’s a specific action — often a line of dialogue — that “brings the scene to life”. I think of it as the point where a director might yell, “Action!” while making a film.
The scene with Linn begins with her slapping the reins over the mule’s back. To bring it more fully to life, I also gave her a few words to speak:
“Go on, there! Get up!”
I added that stubborn mule to make Linn a little frustrated, and to further play up her dislike for the little town, I worked in a little backstory information about her and her glamorous life in San Francisco.
Had she forgotten how to handle a buckboard? She hadn’t driven one in years. In San Francisco, she paid a kindly older gentleman to transport her about town in a fine, open carriage.
Of course, I also had to give some thought to how I would describe Polly — from Linn’s point of view. This meant putting myself in Linn’s head, imagining what her thoughts would be.
Like Brookfield itself, Polly had not changed an iota. Well, maybe she looked a trifle older, and maybe she’d added a few pounds to her skinny frame, but she still wore her mousy-brown hair in that loose bun at the back of her neck, and she still dressed in those simple shirt-waisted frocks. Although she and Polly had once been the best of friends, with one look, Linn knew the two of them no longer had anything in common. No doubt Polly was married now, probably had a houseful of noisy children, and spent her days cooking, cleaning and tending to farm chores.
Scenes serve many different purposes in fiction-writing, not the least of which is moving the story forward. What would happen after this unexpected encounter between two former friends? Again, my main goal here was to show Linn’s bad attitude, her unwillingness to accept the people of Brookfield, and her inability to relate to this simple way of life. Linn’s intention here is in keeping with her original plan to get away from Brookfield as quickly as possible.
“Sorry, but I’m in a bit of a rush right now.” She gave Polly a little wave, waggling her fingers in that affected manner she’d adopted since being on stage. With a swish of her long skirts, Linn climbed aboard the wagon again.
I also used this scene as an opportunity to once again hint at a little backstory information.