J. Anthony Lukas writes with a clear understanding of the value of writing scene by scene. In his book Common Ground, most of the chapters center on one of the three families (Diver, Twymon, or McGoff). Lukas introduces the families in three short opening chapters, beginning each chapter with the scene when a member of the family first hears about the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sunlight struck the gnarled limbs outside his windows, casting a thicket of light and shadow on the white clapboards. From his desk high under the eaves, Colin Diver could watch students strolling the paths of Cambridge Common or playing softball on the neatly trimmed diamond. It was one of those brisk afternoons in early spring, the kind of day which in years past had lured him into the dappled light, rejoicing in his good fortune. But here he lurked in his study, walled in by books, overcome by doubt.
An hour after the transistor radio in the project had blared the news of King's death, Snake and Sly (Twymon) were out on Eustis Street slinging rocks at the police. Around the corner on Dearborn Street, someone had thrown a brick through a grocery store window and every few minutes a kid would scamper across, grab a juicy grapefruit or a handful of plums, then dash to safety in the jiving black crowd.
It was the moment she liked best, the vegetables spread out before her in voluptuous profusion: squeaky stalks of celery, damp lettuce, succulent tomatoes, chilled radishes. From the sink rose the earthy smells of wet roots and peels, and from all about her the clamor and fracas of a busy kitchen, gearing up for dinner only minutes away.
Mark Patinkin, writing under deadline pressures for the Providence Journal-Bulletin in 1985, sent back from Africa some of the most touching stories about life in the drought-stricken areas. His articles captured the pathos through dramatic, often scene-by-scene writing. In "They Flee from Hunger but Keep Their Humanity," he writes of life within a refugee camp containing 55,000 men, women, and children at the point of terminal starvation.
We walked on, into one of the hospital units. I paused by a father and son. The son lay in the father's arms. The father called softly to the son.
I turned to the doctor. "That child looks bad," I said.
The doctor bent over for a closer look. "He died during the night," he said.
Back outside, the sun hit the mountains with a beauty that made me stop and stare. We moved toward the more hopeful side of the camp. A hundred fires were going. The day's cooking had begun, with the last of the wood. This was not a secret place. The whole camp knew this was where the limited food supply was prepared. And no one bothered it.
"I still find it hard to understand," said the doctor.
He had long since been able to pull the curtain down on the tragedies of this place. The one thing he could not get used to was the decency.
Patinkin saw in this small incident (small in terms of all he was witnessing throughout Africa) the potential for drama, drama small enough for the reader to comprehend and become involved in. The overall scene happening to 55,000 people cannot get to our emotions the way a father holding his dead son can. That scene stands, in a sense, for the thousands of similar "minor" incidents happening to these starving refugees. It's meaningful.. .representative, and therefore, realistic.
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