Saturday, January 9, 2010

SCENE: Geektastic

Hi Allyson,

Thanks for starting off the conversation about Geektastic. Today, I’m going to focus on the second story in the collection, “One of Us” by Tracy Lynn.

Unlike most of the stories in Geektastic, One of Us features a non-geek main character, Montgomery K. Bushnell, a blond cheerleader whose boyfriend, Ryan, is quarterback on the high school football team. Ryan, we learn, loves Star Trek and other elements of geeky culture. Montgomery would like to understand him better, so she hires “the four most prominent members of SPRInGfield High’s Genre and Nonsense club (SPRIGGAN)” to tutor her about video games, science fiction TV and movies. In true nerdy fashion, Ezra, David, Mica and Ellen set up a tutoring schedule for Montgomery, kept on Google Calendar, as well as a final exam at the upcoming Locacon sci-fi convention.

Not only is the use of a non-geek protagonist a nice, unexpected twist, but the placement of this story so early in the collection is genius. Any readers concerned about their geek-cred will learn the basics of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, manga, and Buffy the Vampire alongside Montgomery.

What really struck me about “One of Us,” though, was the way Lynn structured the story into scenes. When I first began writing, I understood scenes conceptually but I didn’t understand how to craft them or even how to identify them in my own writing. I printed out the draft of my first novel and tried to mark scene transitions. My goal was to create a list that would give me a high-level view of the work. But I struggled. Where did this scene end? And what was the point of this next scene? And was that one actually a scene?

The first time I really understood how scenes work and, more importantly, how to structure them, was after a workshop led by Kirby Larson, Ann Whitford Paul and Mary Nethery at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. When planning or analyzing a scene, Nethery said, look for three components: a Goal, Obstacles to that goal, and a Disaster. (The follow up to a scene, FYI, is a sequel, which consists of a Reaction, Dilemma and Decision. The Decision then propels the character forward into a new scene with a new Goal).

Lots of times, when I’m reading early drafts of my own work or of other writers, I find scenes that are fragmentary, meaning missing out on one or more of the three scene components, or writing that tends to blather on and on without an ending in sight. (This last, in particular, is my tendency. Some of my scenes ramble endlessly like phone calls where neither person hangs up despite several “I should get goings” and “Oh, I forgot to mentions…”).

“One of Us” features fourteen scenes, plus a fragment, in just 29 pages. That means, on average, each scene is two pages long. Several are longer, of course, and several are quite short. Each one gives examples of how to build a scene as well as how to end it.

Let’s start with a definition. In her book Make a Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld says,

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time. When strung together, individual scenes add up to build plots and storylines” (pp. 5-6).
In other words, scenes are moments of action, shown to the reader, not told. Each scene has a purpose (the Goal), conflict (Obstacles) and an ending (the Disaster).

At five pages, the first scene in “One of Us” is the longest. In it, Lynn introduces the primary characters, sets a clear story goal (Montgomery’s desire to learn about this “stuff”), and introduces some obstacles. It ends with a withering comment from the SPRIGGAN club’s only female member, Ellen, who clearly doesn’t like Montgomery. “’Sports metaphors,’ Ellen said, rolling her eyes. ‘How typical’” (p. 25).

Lynn does not include a sequel to this scene. We do not read about Montgomery’s thoughts following this conversation. If she considers backing out of the tutoring, we don’t know.

The next scene jumps ahead in time to Montgomery’s first tutoring session, led by Ellen. This scene is one-and-a-half pages long and begins,

“All right, let’s start with the basics,” Ellen said, marching back and forth in front of the blackboard. She clasped a yardstick behind her back like a nun or a commandant, just waiting for a chance to strike (p. 25).
From here, dialogue and narrative take us through the lesson. Two-thirds of the way through the scene, Ellen attempts to give Montgomery positive feedback. The cheerleader, in return, praises the color of Ellen’s shirt.
“You should really wear light colors more often. With, um, better shoes” (p. 27)

The scene ends in the next eight words:

“The yardstick almost broke in Ellen’s hands. Almost” (p. 27).
What strikes me about this, again, is what’s left unsaid. Lynn doesn’t detail the rest of the lesson. She accomplished her goal of showing the two girls trying to find common ground and ultimately failing. On to the next scene.

(Note: Tracy Lynn includes a longer version of this scene on her website. Compare it to the printed version. While the Star Trek details are clever, I would argue that they are unnecessary to the scene’s purpose: the interaction between the two girls.)

Somewhere, at some SCBWI conference along the way, I heard the advice to start scenes late and end them early. I flipped through my notebooks to see if I could remember who said this. I searched online and found several people attributing the quote to writer William Goldman. Supposedly, it goes like this (sorry I don’t have a direct source):

“Start every scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible.”
The Star Trek 101 scene described above achieves this goal.

Look through the rest of “One of Us” to see how Lynn propels readers forward from scene to scene. She weaves together a variety of settings, new characters, cultural information, and conflict in short, concise scenes. The pace is quick. Appropriately for a short story, Lynn does not waste a single word on unnecessary detail, and yet she creates memorable characters who show true growth at the end.

Author Susan Breen noted in “What short-story writers and novelists can teach each other” (The Writer, December 2007),

“… so much of short stories is about nuance. Because you don’t have the time and space to explain everything, you have to suggest more to the reader and let her think for herself…. [That] teaches short story writers that the reader is smart” (p. 37).
Lynn respects her readers through her short, focused scenes.

StorySleuths Tip #38: Keep scenes on target by including goals, obstacles, and disasters, and follow William Goldman’s advice to “Start every scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible.”