Scenes The Building Blocks of a Plot

The building blocks you use to construct the story—or, if you prefer, the individual dominoes or the links in the chain—are scenes.

A scene is a unit of story action. At a particular time and in a specific place, something happens that is significant to the plot. For instance:

• A character is introduced or has new light shed upon him.

• The nature of the relationship between two characters is established.

• An event takes place—an action, a consequence, a complica-tion—that moves the story forward.

• A piece of crucial information is provided.

A scene is a small story of its own, a mini-drama with a beginning, a middle, a high point or climactic moment, and an end. A bit of the conflict is played out, and the tension rises.

Depending on the job it needs to do, a scene might be only a few lines long or might continue for several pages; some stories consist of a single extended scene. The second scene in my short story, Dreaming of Dragons, comprises the four paragraphs you read on page 24. This scene establishes the story's setting as Chinatown in February when the New Year celebration occurs, introduces the theme of wisdom versus luck, and gives readers their first glimpse at the statue of Buddha, which will be an ongoing motif.

Suppose you were writing Cinderella and chose to bring readers into the bedroom as the stepsisters dress for the ball. Such a scene could serve several purposes. For example, as we watch them primp and listen to them chatter, we could discover that the stepsisters are vain, self-centered, and cruel; find out if the pair are rivals or friends; and learn how badly they want to captivate the Prince.

Writing a short story can seem like a formidable project.

One way to tackle it and make it more manageable is to break it down into several smaller tasks, by writing scenes. Keep the following points in mind as you do:

• Create a picture for your readers. A scene can be visualized, which is what makes it such a powerful means of telling a story. Not only can we see what's happening on the screen of our minds, if you give us the right sensory details we can hear it, smell it, touch it, and taste it as well. Take full advantage of the opportunity to increase your readers' level of involvement.

• Set the stage quickly. Three key elements of a scene are time, location, and participating characters. Let us know right away: Where are we, and when? Who is here with us? If we start with an accurate mental picture, we can follow the action easily, even when you choose to be mysterious about exactly what's going on and why. If we realize halfway through the scene that our mental image is wrong, we end up feeling distracted and confused.

• Make it active. Action and dialogue are the other two key elements of a scene. Rather than rely on long explanations, let the characters convey information to readers directly through what they say, think, and do.

• Stick to the point. Decide what you want to accomplish in the scene, focus the action on that result, and end it quickly.

• Make a smooth transition to the next scene. There are a couple of ways to do this, depending on the kind of rhythm and flow you want the story to have. The first is the line break; when you finish Scene One, skip a line and jump straight into Scene Two. The effect is similar to the cuts between scenes in a film. The second way is to include a line or two that covers the shift in place and time:

"Forget it, Josh. It's over. There's nothing more to say." Lisa shut the door. The click of the latch boomed in his ears as if she had slammed it.

Josh rang the doorbell and waited. The curtain flickered in the window that looked out on the porch, and he thought she might be watching him through the pattern of the lace, but he couldn't be sure.

He didn't sleep that night, but lay awake practicing what he would say to her at work the next morning.

"Josh, come here!" Already his boss was yelling and Josh hadn't even had time to hang up his coat.

The line about Josh's failure to sleep is a bridge between the scene just ending at Lisa's front door and the new one just starting at the office the next morning.

Stories without Plots

Not every short story has a plot. Although it would be hard to pull off in a novel, the brevity of a short story allows you to create a strong and satisfying experience for the reader without a plot.

A plotless story can resemble a collection of fragments, like a mosaic, a collage, a quilt, or even a jazz improvisation. At first it may look as though "nothing happens." The images, incidents, and bits of information may seem random, unconnected, or disjointed. Rather than action and character, the author may count on symbols, impressions, rhythms, and the poetic dance of words to create the desired effect, to provide the source of energy that keeps readers involved.

There is still a story goal, a mission the author is trying to accomplish: to evoke an emotion or a mood, to explore a theme, to share an experience, to describe a person, to help the reader comprehend some aspect of the human condition. Each of the fragments contributes to the reader's perception and understanding of this larger whole, so that a sense of unity is achieved at the end. They are not linked by chronology or cause and effect, but by similar emotional or psychological resonances or other things they have in common. Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried, imparts the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam by cataloging all the various items, and the weight of each, toted by the individual members of an infantry platoon—military gear, personal talismans and treasures, and intangible feelings and fears. Threaded through the inventory is the account of the one soldier's death and the response it invokes in his fellow soldiers and their lieutenant.

Of course, the techniques used to create unplotted stories, such as careful use of language and imagery and thematic links, can be put to excellent purpose in a more traditional narrative. Sometimes, if you dig beneath the surface, a story that appears to have no plot may reveal telltale signs: characters with a conflict to resolve, events that can be listed chronologically, actions that have consequences, and a thrust to a climax and resolution.

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