In this brilliant craft book for fiction (and I would say any writing), Scofield offers writing exercises throughout that I’ve never encountered. They are fresh and gave me a way to analyze my scenes as if I put on visceral vision goggles. With the goggles on, I can go through a checklist to make sure my scenes live and go somewhere.
One fantastic exercise in particular has the writer conjure a favorite scene from a movie. Now, go write that scene. So far, everyone who’s done this has come up with action and descriptions surrounding that action. The goal is not total recall, just your memory of the scene as it unfolds in your mind.
My favorite scene that I re-wrote was from the movie version of The Shipping News (originally by Annie Proulx). The scene doesn’t exist in the book, but borrowed from several scenes. While in the act of writing it, the characters and actions were chiseled in my mind, hard edges and easy to dictate. Here’s a sample of Annie Proulx’s description (from the text):
“One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound of the television, and after a while, squeaking squeaking squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and a stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears.”
The scene I wrote was just after this, and doesn’t exist in the book, only in the movie. Here’s my take:
The front door slammed against the wall downstairs. Quoyle had fallen asleep to wrestling again, his socked foot just touched the tip of Bunny’s night gown. At the noise, they both rose like cats, alert and ready to decipher further noises.
“Fuckin’ door,” Petal laughed and her high-pitched scream pierced up through the staircase. A man’s voice laughed with her as Quole and Bunny heard bumping boots against the floor.
Quoyle tip-toed downstairs, showing his palm behind him to Bunny. She wasn’t allowed to follow just now.
“Petal?” As Quoyle turned on the landing, he just caught Petal’s pink stiletto heal fly off and the door slam behind her and the stranger in the guest bedroom. He tip-toed back upstairs to Bunny who sat mumbling, “Mommy?”
The morning came quickly since Petal had brought her new beaux home at four. Quoyle got Bunny up to brush her teeth and cleaned up the mess of coats that had fallen off the front hooks. He found Petal pulling on jeans that were too tight over her fish nets.
“Fuck,” she jumped around and stripped them off into a ball in the corner.
“Petal. How long are you staying?” Quoyle rubbed at the square patches on his elbows.
“I’m leaving. Why don’t you find a girlfriend?” Petal pulled up a pink plastic skirt to meet the puffy sweater.
“I only want you. I love you,” Quoyle said and stretched a hand to touch her sweater. Petal pulled herself out of his grip and blew a pink bubble from her magenta lips.
“I will only destroy you,” Petal pushed at her red bangs in the mirror. She was still porcelain, with high cheek bones and eyes that glowed under dark mascara.
“When will you come back?” Quoyle followed her out into the hall.
“Mommy? Petal?” Bunny stepped out of the bathroom in her bare feet. She almost tripped over her night gown to hug her.
“Hi, Bunny. What’s a thumper doing in her pajamas?” Petal kept walking down the stairs and Bunny’s arms broke free of her. Bunny hopped down each stair, grasping after Petal.
“Mommy’s gotta go.” Petal stuffed another scarf into her bag and opened the door. By then, Bunny took her by the hand and pulled her to a stop. Her brown hair was in small snarls around her face. Her nose, Quoyle’s, scrunched.
“Don’t go.” She pulled on Petal’s necklace that hung past her full cleavage.
“Here.” Petal stooped and put a beer can pull-tab around Bunny’s pointer finger. “Pretty.”
“Petal. No.” Bunny pulled once again on the necklace that hung in her hair as she was given a last hug and it snapped into an explosion of beads, baubles invading every space of the landing.
“Shit. Look what you did?” Petal pulled her auburn hair behind her and slammed the door. Quoyle didn’t say a word more except to hunch on the landing’s linoleum to help gather every last bead Petal left in her wake.
So my scene doesn’t touch the Proulx style, nor does it scream art, but what this activity showed me was if I put my own characters in that immediacy of film, they will have conflict, they will embody the 3-D world of clothing, behaviors unique to them, and sounds/sights that push the plot. Now, you try.
(P.S. If you haven’t read or seen the Shipping News, read it first, then watch the movie.)