Tom Sawyer and the Curse of the Non-Scene
Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but the good is not always interred with their bones. Sometimes it just lurks there in my computer files. I do a search for “Marilyn Meredith” and up pops “Sinc and Swim” from my stint as editor of the newsletter for Sisters in Crime-Internet Chapter.
This newsletter (February 2005, Issue #47) is apparently the last one I published before moving from California to Oklahoma and losing track of the whole kit and caboodle. The issue was full of good stuff, including an excerpt on the curse of the “non-scene” from Thomas B. Sawyer’s book, FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED.
Pity the poor conference chair who must introduce Tom Sawyer. The man has done everything from comic strips to a contemporary opera based on the life of John F. Kennedy. Writer of more than 100 network TV episodes, he was also producer, creative consultant or story editor on such network series as “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Law & Harry McGraw.” His first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, is a thriller with a stunning twist on the Kennedy assassination. NO PLACE TO RUN, his new thriller from Sterling & Ross, is the first novel to make the case that people high in the U.S. enabled 9/11.
Tom is the creator of PLOTS UNLIMITED, an interactive plot-generating software for fiction writers, and co-creator of its successor, STORYBASE, published by Ashleywilde, Inc. He travels the country as a conference speaker and guest lecturer. His book FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, also published by Ashleywilde, Inc., is a user-friendly and entertaining course in the specifics of fiction writing.
Chapter Five of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED is about constructing a story. With Tom’s kind permission I excerpted for my newsletter his description of what he calls the non-scene, and reprint it again here. Will it surprise you to learn that the hardest scene to write without turning it into a snoozer is the love scene?
CURSE OF THE NON-SCENE: An excerpt from FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED by Thomas B. Sawyer. Chapter Five of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED is about constructing a story. Read on.
THE NON-SCENE — CAUSES AND CURES
*The scene in which all of the characters are in agreement with each other.
*The scene inserted solely for the purpose of exposition, of passing along information to the audience.
*The scene that is basically “mechanical” in the sense that its excuse for being there — its purpose — is to establish a certain fact, or to get this or that character from Point A to Point B for plot purposes.
*The scene that merely platforms a story-element or clue without achieving anything else. Without adding anything new, or advancing inter-character conflicts.
*The scene containing no dramatic or comedic value.
*The scene that fails to entertain.
All of these are what we describe in television as non-scenes. And I mark them as such in scripts that I’m editing. They’re dull, amateurish, and not acceptable.
They also have something else in common: If whatever they accomplish is essential to your story, they can almost always be incorporated into other, more interesting scenes.
It’s worth repeating here that among the most important of the many self-editing questions you need to ask yourself is — where is the heat in each scene? Where’s the tension in each moment? Where is the conflict? Where’s the edge? What’s going on in this transaction beyond the transaction itself? Again, the heat need not be in what they’re talking about or otherwise acting out, but rather in the sub text, a topic discussed more fully in Chapter Six.
Further, each scene should pass the writer’s “What does it accomplish?” test. Does it move the story to another place? Does it expose another side of one or more of the characters?
If the answer is no, it’s telling you to rethink it.
Non-scenes are what cause your audience to dial out. The good news is — the condition is fixable. In ways suggested earlier in this book, as well as others you’ll figure out for yourself. Sometimes the solution will be to eliminate the scene, or to combine it with another. Or — to find another layer, another level further beneath the surface of one or more of your characters — one that provides the needed spark that will bring the scene to life.
But first, you need to recognize when you’ve committed a non-scene, to set your own detector to begin flashing when the problem shows up.
The toughest scene to write so that it won’t be a non-scene is, as mentioned earlier, the love scene. The scene between two people who agree with each other. Because on the face of it, it doesn’t have conflict, ergo it has no drama. Ergo it has no entertainment value. Even if it’s gussied up with literal eroticism, or with jokes — unless the humor — or the acrobatics, contain some conflict.
Examine the earlier-referenced opening of Preston Sturges’ film, Christmas in July, and you’ll see one of the very best examples of how to make such a moment work. I think you will also be impressed by how much, in terms of subtle exposition, Sturges shows us about the couple — and how quickly he sketches it in — without being on-the-nose.
What continues to astonish me, in novels, television shows, and in so many big-or-small budget movies, is how often edges are missing from scenes, or even from entire stories. One of the liberating benefits of the VCR and DVD is that if a movie viewed at home fails to grab us in — say — the first fifteen or twenty minutes, we can — and do — bail out with less hesitation than if we’d laid out nine or ten dollars per theater ticket — plus overpriced candy and popcorn. Or popped for a pricey, over-hyped hardcover book that turns out to be unreadable.
Obviously, considering the number of such novels that are published, and films released, containing long, uninteresting, nonconfrontational scenes, there are quite a few successful professionals out there who seem to disagree with me about the need for consistent, ever-present conflict as the tool for grabbing — and then holding onto — the audience.
Are they wrong? I believe they are. Would their work be more effective, more involving, if they did agree? I know it would. Or — could it be — they simply don’t know any better…?
Next time you encounter a piece that fails to engage you because it lacks edge, or story, or compelling characters, I suggest that you question it in at least the following terms: How could the author have made it better? How, if you were given the opportunity of rewriting or editing the material, could you have made it better?
It seems a near-universal truth that it’s far easier to learn from bad stuff than from good. The good — novels, short stories, plays, movies — seem to transport us into their world, taking us along on their ride, anesthetizing most of our critical faculties. At least until we revisit them.
And than there are those rare jewels — the really good ones that get better as, with each encounter, we bring something new to the table. In my own experience, re-reading Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at ten or fifteen-year intervals has been like reading a fresh, ever-better book each time.
The good ones accomplish what we, as writers, hope to do.
—- from FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, © 2003 by Thomas B. Sawyer, published by Ashleywilde, Inc., ISBN 0-9627476-1-0.