I’m so happy to be back to StorySleuths after our hiatus this fall. I hope your writing has been going well.
This month, we’re reading Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, which starts when Tess Brooks and her family bring a foster child named Aaron into their home on the island of Bethsaida, Maine. This is a story about belonging, family, community, and luck.
Speaking of luck, the timing for me to dig into this month’s book couldn’t be more perfect. Touch Blue features several “big scenes” similar to the scene I’m currently writing in my novel.
What is a big scene? Sandra Scofield, author of The Scene Book, describes big scenes as “scenes that have many characters.” These would include parties, weddings, holidays, and other gatherings.
These scenes are difficult to write, even for masters. Here, Scofield shares a snippet from a letter by Gustave Flaubert describing his challenge in creating a scene in Madame Bovary:
“Never in my life have I written anything more difficult than what I am doing now—trivial dialogue. I have to portray, simultaneously and in the same conversation, five or six characters who speak, several others who are spoken about, the scene, and the whole town… and in the midst of all that, I have to show a man and a woman who are beginning… to fall in love with each other…” (Scofield, p. 156).
A lot to accomplish!
Scofield says that big scenes take as much planning as “the preparation of a huge Christmas dinner, a school play, or any other event that has many components.” Who is there? Where are they? Why have they gathered? What are they doing?
Chapter Two of Touch Blue, Aaron’s arrival on the island, is an ambitious big scene. Let’s step through the scene beat by beat to see how Lord introduces the reader to the characters, the situation, and the island.
1. Libby and Tess arrive at the crowded wharf.
a. In a broad stroke, Lord shows us that the entire town is waiting.
b. Reaction: Tess is annoyed that Eben Calder is there. We get a quick introduction to the antagonist.
2. While Tess looks through the crowd, she hears snippets of conversation.
a. We get details about the boat (setting).
b. The unattributed conversation snippets give the impression of the crowd, plus they provide details about what is happening.
c. Reaction: Tess reflects on the Hamiltons’ move and its implications.
d. Her reflection leads her into a flashback that reveals background information about the plan to bring foster children to the island.
3. Jenna Ross says hi to Tess and they talk.
a. We meet a potential new friend for Tess.
b. The conversation reveals more details about the foster children.
c. Reaction: Tess doesn’t really like Jenna. (Introduction of a story layer)
4. The passengers disembark. Tess waits. She sees Aaron at last.
a. Great sensory and setting details emerge from the descriptions of the ferry and passengers (p. 12-13).
b. We get a first glimpse of Aaron through Tess.
c. Reaction: Tess is disappointed that Aaron has red hair (unlucky) and looks weak.
d. Mrs. Coombs’ also comments about Aaron’s appearance.
5. Dad introduces Aaron to Tess and Libby.
a. Libby throws herself at Aaron, a direct contrast to Tess’s more restrained approach.
b. Aaron’s response reveals his own hesitations.
c. Reaction: Tess is worried that this won’t work out.
d. More setting details come as the family leaves the wharf, passing a lot full of beater cars.
e. The scene ends with another wish from Tess—connection to the theme of luck.
The tension in the scene comes from Tess as she moves from a state of excited anticipation to disappointment and worry at Aaron’s appearance. The reader finishes the chapter wondering whether the living arrangements will work out for Aaron and the Brooks.
Chapter Two of Touch Blue is a great example of how much a big scene can accomplish. This chapter is nine pages long, and it provides introductions to all the major characters, establishes the setting, connects to several thematic lines (belonging, community, luck), introduces a story layer (Tess becoming friends with Jenna), establishes stakes, and builds tension.
While the scene is complicated, Lord keeps it highly focused, never letting us lose sight of Tess’s actions and reactions. Nothing in the scene is superfluous. Everything works together.
StorySleuths Tip #98: Sandra Scofield suggests breaking down a big scene into the same elements of a story: beginning-middle-end, with growing tension, a setting, and a shift at the end. Use beats to break the scene down into parts. Make sure that every element contributes something.