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SCENE AND NARRATIVE

The above examples illustrate showing and telling only in their most general application. In their most technical form, showing can be thought of as scene, telling as narrative. To properly balance scene and narrative so that a story takes on depth and insight and rhythm and shape, you must first understand the difference between scene and narrative and how they complement each other.



Scene serves a specific purpose; it usually contains dialogue; it has a beginning, middle, and end; and it moves the story forward. Narra­tive is the flow of prose—the string of sentences and paragraphs— that tell the story. A scene almost always contains some narrative, but the converse is not true; narrative does not have to contain scene.

Let's begin a story in two ways, first with a narrative passage and then with a short scene.


Narrative ("telling"): Ms. Kendall was Middleton School's most popular teacher. She was always bringing in maps and atlases to brighten her classroom and motivate her fourth grad­ers. The children adored her and ran to her aid every time they had a chance. Mrs. Brimley, the other fourth-grade teacher, watched this daily homage with a mixture of resentment and awe.
As you can see from the above passage, narrative allows you to make the point and do the informing yourself. You can give readers direct information about your characters' virtues, failings, and inner con­flicts as well as the more mundane aspects of their lives: employment, appearance, or marital status, for example.

In a scene, on the other hand, the characters and setting can make the point for you:


Scene ("showing"): Ms. Kendall paused at her classroom door and shifted her full-color maps of the NATO nations from one arm to the other. Spotting her, a small group of fourth graders dropped the books they were hauling and rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

"Children! Children!" Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. "One at a time, now. You can't all help at once."

Mrs. Brimley, marooned at the far end of the hall amidst a splatter of upended math books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet.
This passage, though brief, can be considered a scene because it serves a purpose (to show that Ms. Kendall is popular with the chil­dren and that Mrs. Brimley resents it); it contains dialogue; it has a beginning (the pause at the door), a middle (the stampede), and an end (Mrs. Brimley's abandonment); and it moves the story forward (puts Mrs. Brimley in a position of reacting to what she has just experi­enced). Mini-scenes like this combine to create larger scenes, and the larger scenes combine to create a story. Scenes have to be relieved by spots of narrative, though, or your story will never end. For exam­ple, a narrative passage like this—"Mrs. Brimley marched the chil­dren through their multiplication drills, willing the clock's heavy hands to move"—saves you a long, unnecessary scene depicting Mrs. Brimley drilling her students. You can suggest the torpor of the long afternoon without subjecting the unfortunate readers to a torpid scene.

Most of us have been trained to think of narrative (telling) as "bad description" and scene (showing) as "good description." Cer­tainly a case can be made that in the above examples, the scene is better than the narrative passage, but that's only because both pas­sages are rendered in such extremes. The narrative passage is dull and expository—it doesn't vividly describe the Kendall-Brimley con­flict. The verbs aren't particularly strong (was; motivate; ran; watched), and the picture being painted doesn't engage the senses. There is no sound or movement; again, we're watching characters on a screen. The scene, on the other hand, contains noise and move­ment and dialogue and marvelous verbs like "marooned" and "yip-ping." Does that mean you should begin this story with a scene? Not necessarily.

Perhaps you wish to paint only a brief (but potent) picture of the Brimley-Kendall relationship to get to the real story, which is about Mrs. Brimley. Perhaps you plan to portray Mrs. Brimley as a woman with numerous personal burdens—a dying mother, a divorce in progress, fading beauty, an ungrateful son—who becomes fasci­nated by Ms. Kendall, in whom she sees the girl she herself once was. In a rare impulsive moment Mrs. Brimley steals Ms. Kendall's classroom key. She begins to prowl Ms. Kendall's classroom at night, sifting through Ms. Kendall's button collection and cuddling the classroom hamster. In time she can't stop, for Ms. Kendall's posses­sions have become talismans of sorts, good-luck charms that fend off Mrs. Brimley's weariness and grief. If this is the story you decide to tell, then the above scene might not merit so much ado; you might want to deliver the initial information quickly, in order to get on with the real story. Back to narrative, then—but this time with more attention to the prose:
Narrative, second draft: Mrs. Brimley envied Ms. Kendall's youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the thirty-five fourth graders they divided between them. The children preferred Ms. Kendall, every last one of them, and who could blame them? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. I love her, Mrs. Brimley whispered dozens of times a day. And I hate her.
Do you see the difference? This is narrative that is every bit as effective as scene. Narrative does not have to be merely informational. This passage contains imagistic language ("silky arms" and laughter like a "salve") and a haunting bit of sound with the whispered "I love her ... I hate her." The internal monologue (". . . who could blame them?") brings your readers deep inside Mrs. Brimley's experience.

Now you have an engaging story opening that introduces two contrasting characters and sets up a tense internal conflict in Mrs. Brimley. Technically, you have "shown" nothing, but by using imagis­tic language and a bit of internal monologue you have summarized the story's basic conflict and given your lucky readers a perfect point of entry: a character with some meat on her bones, and a story with a destination. You have revealed something about Mrs. Brimley that might have been diluted or lost in a full-blown scene.

If you forced yourself to "show" everything you've "told" in this passage, you'd be confronted with five pages instead of one paragraph. You'd have to begin with a scene that shows Ms. Kendall being the preferred teacher, then you'd have to show Mrs. Brimley in a situation where she loves Ms. Kendall, and another in which she hates her. You'd lose the immediacy of the dilemma, the mantra-like I love her, I hate her, the tinge of mystery, and the intensity of Mrs. Brimley's sorrow. A scene-by-scene revelation would rob your readers of that exquisite, all-at-once wallop of insight—that Mrs. Brimley has suffered a long time with her conflicting emotions. Besides, your readers may become impatient with a story that takes too long to begin.

Of course, the happiest compromise in the scene-narrative di­lemma is combination. This blending process is what good writing is all about. During revision you make continual decisions about scene and narrative, whether you realize it or not. You might throw out a line here, add a snippet of dialogue there, change an adjective or verb. You're balancing, balancing: scene and narrative, narrative and scene. Showing, telling, telling, showing. The combination often yields something like the following:


Combination narrative and scene: Mrs. Brimley's 4A's, each with an armload of math books they were helping to transfer from the library to Room 3, spotted Ms. Kendall at the other end of the corridor. She was stalled at her classroom door, shift­ing her own bundle—full-color maps of the NATO nations—from one arm to the other. Dropping their books like so many bombs, the 4A's rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

"Children! Children!" Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. "One at a time, now. You can't all help at once."

Mrs. Brimley, suddenly marooned amidst a splatter of up­ended books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stam­peding feet. She envied Ms. Kendall's youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the children. Who could blame them for adoring her? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. Mrs. Brimley sighed, bending to retrieve the books. I hate her, she whispered, tucking back a ripped page. And I love her.
This blend of narrative and scene yields a meaty, intriguing opening for your story. Scene and narrative do not always have to be com­bined, however. You may have a stylistic preference for one over the other; your intentions for the story may require more narrative than scene, or vice versa. Some stories can successfully be rendered as scene alone—completely in dialogue and gesture, with no narrative at all. Other excellent stories are told entirely as narrative in which no dialogue intrudes and the prose flows smoothly from beginning to end. In general, though, a combination of scene and narrative makes for the most pleasing and traditional storytelling.



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