Making a Scene: stalking the key ingredients
by Shelly Frome
When I was a little kid, I often heard mothers say, “We’re out in public. Don’t make a scene.” At first, I thought it meant, I want you to behave yourself or I will tell your father. Or, Please, I’m only going to ask you once. Don’t embarrass me. Later on, it seemed some parent in question was saying, Don’t you dare do anything to draw attention to us. Later still, I began to wonder what it would take to not only draw people’s attention but to sustain it. What could the child do besides acting out? Which, by that point, had become so predictable in shopping centers everywhere that it just didn’t play. No longer was repression and strict behavior part of our cultural landscape.
Interesting enough, after years of acting, teaching, directing and playwriting, each time I tackle a novel I have to confront this same problem. I still marvel over Brando’s performance in the movie On the Waterfront when, for instance, disregarding what Budd Schulberg had written in the script, he picked up Eva Marie Saint’s delicate white glove. They were outside in the freezing cold in a park not far from the Jersey docks. The two had barely met. Brando was an illiterate dock worker and Ms. Saint was playing a former convent girl as delicate as her gloves. Intuitively, Brando knew he wasn’t good enough for her. Intuitively, the closest he could get, the only way he could hold her there was to pick up the glove she had inadvertently dropped (which also wasn’t in the written scene), slip his hand inside and, in that way, keep her from leaving.
The noted movie director Robert Altman was fond of saying that every time the actors did what they were told—said what they were supposed to say, followed the stage directions to the letter—he had no movie. It was only the happy accidents that made the storyline work. It was because of something other, some elusive ingredient that any given scene sprang to life. And, inevitably, those were the moments that moviegoers remembered.
So here I am, approaching another scene in a new novel I’m writing. As far as I know, Jed, my wayward central character, who is in deep trouble, is about to approach Babs, a power supply store owner, for some information. The scene falls flat because each character is doing exactly what I expected. It’s only when I have Babs wheel out a reconditioned DR brush cutter trying to deflect that things start to happen. The more she attempts to pawn it off on him, placing it between Jed and herself, the more obstacles Jed has to navigate around literally and figuratively. And the more Babs finds little devices to ward Jed off, the more the scene starts to percolate.
It wasn’t the answer. It was only part of the improvisational process. To put it another way, What’s it going to take to “jack this up” to use novel guru Larry Brooks’ unfortunate phrase. (An expression he kept using during his Story Engineering sessions at a recent writers conference in Portland.)
I myself would rather ask, What will make this encounter reverberate and propel the story on? How can I make a scene?
OK: What inspires you as a writer?
Some pressing unfinished business I need to come to terms with; a provocative wrong in the world I’m at odds with and have to put right or at least deal with; an intriguing place or setting that sparks an irrepressible journey or exploration—e.g., finding myself in the backwoods of the Deep South with its haunting history.
OK: When did you have that ah ha moment when you knew you were a writer?
While trying my hand as a playwright, my first effort (a one-act) was immediately published by an enthusiastic lady who wrote that I “had a great feeling for a dramatic engine.” Then when I stretched out, wrote a full-length and sent it to a noted author and professor of playwriting at Indiana University, I was told I “truly had writing gifts.” At that point, I felt I wouldn’t be kidding myself if I pursued some form of creative writing to see where it led me. Admittedly, I always seem to need some assurance from those in a position to know what it really takes.
OK: What is your writing process?
In all cases I seem to be on a quest. At first it’s very vague. I have an idea what notion or set of dramatic circumstances is prodding me, I know what the catalyst is—the disturbance that sets everything in motion-- and I’m pretty sure the journey is going to take me from here to there. But I don’t know how I’m going to get there. At some stage I have to devise a logline, a one-sentence synopsis like the ones you find in movie guides or the book review section of the New York Times so I can pin down exactly what this novel is about. At the outset, I also have to determine who the major players are and make sure they contrast and will develop so that I’ll be surprised along the way. Taking this approach I’m guaranteed he story will be character driven an not just plot driven.
Along the way, I always discover missing links and holes where I have to do research and determine certain realities so that this particular odyssey if firmly grounded and not just floating free in my imagination. I also find that I do a lot of daydreaming before I jot down each scene so that I can picture events unfolding like a good movie. In a way, I’m always asking myself, Why here? Why now? and, So what?
Last, but not least, I go over each scene and then a set of chapters until I have a through-line, always aware of the tempo and dynamics (contrasting waves of rising action and falling action, short scenes and more developed scenes, dialogue and synopsis, etc.) I want to be caught up in the story like an avid reader who is in the flow and has to keep going in order to discover what happens next.
OK: Tell us about your favorite character and why you chose to write about her or him?
That, of course, is like asking, Who’s your favorite child? But I am quite taken with Alice in my latest, Twilight of the Drifter. Some reviewer recently found her to be a cross between Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and Mattie Ross in True Grit. All I know is that she’s barely fourteen, a runaway, has had a dreadful upbringing which amounts to no upbringing at all, and is a survivor. As a result, I never knew exactly what she was going to say or do, loved her cocky façade and hidden vulnerability, and was willing to follow her anywhere.
OK: What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a crime novel centering on a thirty-something handyman who becomes embroiled in the murder of his employer, a highly suggestible lady choreographer who’s sought refuge in a rundown cape in an isolated section of the Connecticut hills. Determined to challenge the circumstantial evidence weighing against him, he also seeks justice for the victim whom he’s unwittingly grown fond of. But like everything else, the harder you try to overcome something nearly impossible, the greater resistance. At this point, Jed finds himself on a collision course with elements of organized crime. As it happens, this murder is only part of a botched scheme and intended cover-up involving racketeering on the Jersey docks with probable stopovers in Manhattan, South Florida and various locales in and around Connecticut. Currently, this is as far as I’ve gotten.
OK: Any upcoming events?
Tinseltown Riff, a Hollywood escapade, is scheduled to be released some time this spring. It’s a story that straddles the line between illusion and reality, fantasy and danger as it delves into the loopiest business on earth. An L.A. film agent recently wrote that even though she loves the milieu and the dynamics, Ben, my desperate hack screenwriter is basically a nice guy and nice guys aren’t trending right now. My publisher doesn’t agree. Hopefully readers will side with my publisher.
OK: Do you have any advice for new writers and something that a seasoned vet can learn?
I suppose the toughest thing is to try to come to terms with the new realities. There was a time when you could devote your energy toward honing your craft, refining your voice, deepening your work. Then after, say, getting some expert editorial advice, polishing a final draft and trying to get a good agent or sending the novel off to appropriate publishers. Nowadays, with the burden of salesmanship on the shoulders of writers, and through the relative ease of self-publishing, anyone and everyone it seems can call themselves an author. Not only that, they flood the Web and social media with self-advertisements (“buy me, buy me . . like me and I’ll do the same for you . . . my e-book is now only 99 cents, what a bargain . . . ”). As a result, it’s become harder to maintain any integrity. At a recent major writers conference in Portland, Oregon I was repeatedly advised that top flight agents and publishers receive at least 200 unsolicited submissions a day. If you can make personal contact and they like your pitch, they will still only read the first few pages. If they’re hooked, are convinced you’re a professional writer and think you’re on to something marketable, they’ll ask for more.
I know this is a long answer to your question, but I’ve reached the point that the only thing that makes sense for me is to concentrate on my work, send it to my independent publisher when I think it’s ready, take the advice of my editor who will inevitably find glitches here and there, do what I can to help promote the book when it comes out and devote most of my spare time to the creative process.
OK: Where can your followers find you?
Twitter: @shellyFrome Amazon: Shelly Frome; author central Facebook, Google +, Goodreads, Linkedin firstname.lastname@example.org
OK: Thank you for stopping by Shelly!