WHAT IS A SCENE?
Or, more usefully –
WHEN IS A SCENE?
Going back to our Winning dialogue, in which two people are both trying to win the argument, and so win the scene – there are only a very few ways this can play out.
- Underdog defeats Top Dog and becomes Top Dog (Change)
- Top Dog defeats Underdog and stays Top Dog (Chance of Change)
- Top Dog and Underdog draw and have to work out a way of sharing power (Choice)
- Top Dog and Underdog unite to fight Strange Dog (Choice)
By the end of the scene, Top Dog is either still Top Dog or has been replaced by the Underdog – or, possibly, they have reached an agreement to stop fighting for power within a limited sphere, and to unite to face a common enemy, Strange Dog.
If all this is sounding a bit too male and macho, it shouldn’t. That’s my fault. These kind of conflicts could equally well be occurring inside a nunnery or a lesbian separatist commune. The verbal fight may be over who has the highest status, or it would be about who feels sorriest for a friend who has breast cancer.
One of the main points of the scene could be that an entirely undeclared war is taking place, and that none of the parties can appear to be doing anything hostile – anything other than getting on wonderfully well.
Some of the fiercest, funniest or saddest exchanges can also take place over who is Underdog. How many times have you overheard a conversation whose barely buried meaning is I have suffered followed by Yes, but I have suffered more. People can be merciless in their attempt to occupy the position of Greatest Victim.
Within scenes, as within dialogue, there is power, there is fear and there is ego.
Mr But: You’re painting a very bleak picture of humanity here. I can easily imagine a scene in which everyone agrees – in which everyone gets on and likes one another.
Okay, let’s take that as our start point. Let’s play a scene two ways – Mr But’s and mine.
An abandoned warehouse. A gang meets to plan a bank raid. They are called A, B, C and D. They are an unusual group in that they have no leader. Everyone within the group is equally valued and listened to. The conversation goes like this:
D: I suggest we do it next Wednesday.
C: Sounds like a good idea.
A: Great. And I suggest we divide the money up equally, because we’re all taking the same risk…
B: Fine by me.
D: That sounds like an equitable agreement. Does anyone have anything else to say?
B: Well, afterwards, I think we should all promise to try to spend the money as discreetly as possible – so as not to alert the police.
A: I agree 100%.
Now, let’s say the raid goes ahead, on the Wednesday, but that turns out to be the day of the annual parade – and when the robbers emerge from the bank, carrying bags of notes, they run straight into an entire police battalion. A gunfight ensues. D is shot but A, B and C make it back to the abandoned warehouse. What next? What scene can possibly take place?
D: Which idiot suggested we do the raid on Wednesday?
C: You did.
B: And we all agreed to it.
D: Oh. Right.
D: Why did I ever suggest Wednesday for the raid?
C: Don’t beat yourself up about it. We all agreed to it.
B: Yes, and we’re equally at fault for not checking the calendar to see what was happening that day…
Alternatively, for our start point, we can have a scene like this:
D: I suggest we do it next Wednesday.
C: No, Wednesday’s too soon – we need more time to plan, get everything in place.
B: The longer we wait, the more chance they change the combination on the safe – I say we go Wednesday.
A: Isn’t Wednesday the day of the annual –
D: Shut up – no-one wants to listen to you.
Raid goes ahead, as does parade. A is shot. B, C and D make it back to the abandoned warehouse.
C: I told him Wednesday was too soon – we needed more time to plan.
B: I tried to tell D about the parade, but D just wouldn’t listen.
D: Are you saying I fucked up and got A killed? Is that what you’re saying, because if that’s what you’re saying just come out and say it.
B: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
There may be a point in a story where a scene of perfect or apparently accord is the best thing – the fragile peace, the happy ending – but if you have a group of people who all agree completely about everything, then, in a sense, they reduce down to one person. What happens to them, after they have come to an easy and unanimous decision, rebounds upon them equally. None of them takes greater or lesser responsibility for what went wrong. And because of what went wrong, they have been brought even closer together in terms of power relations. They are all equally to blame, they are all equally guilty. In story terms, there has been no gain in energy. We’re heading, at least within the group, towards stagnation.
Aside: By having the Underdog, A, die, there is less need for there to be a scene afterwards in which a fight takes place over who is going to be the new Top Dog – as would be the case if the one who died was D.
The greatest story energy is created by the greatest amount of change in power relations.
IT WAS BETWEEN THE BROTHERS
We have a story or two brothers, the older of whom has always bullied the younger. But the younger has secretly been taking kung fu lessons from a kooky caretaker he met. One day, when he has learned enough, the younger brother warns the older brother not to disrespect him any more. At this, the older brother tries – as always – to take the younger brother’s pocket money. Several swift and shocking kung fu moves later, the older brother is down on the ground shouting ‘Pax!’ and the power relations between them have been forever changed.
This, or a less straightforward version of this, could make a short story.
But now we have a story of two brothers who go to a very big school. The older brother is Top Dog in the entire school. Anyone challenges him, he destroys them. The younger brother is Underdog of the whole school. Even the smallest children laugh at him. And he does nothing… Until he meets a kooky caretaker who gives him kung fu lessons. One day in the family kitchen, when he has learned enough, the younger brother warns the older brother not to disrespect him any more – especially at school. The story plays out as above, except the fight takes place in the playground, in front of the entire school. The younger brother doesn’t just overtake his older brother, he overtakes everyone present.
This amount of story energy is probably too much for a short story or adult novel to contain. It’s The Karate Kid, and that was a movie. More exactly, it was a movie within the Rocky genre. Total Underdog trains to become Top Dog. This makes for scene after scene after scene of maximum shift in power relations.
What is the story if the central person isn’t Rocky Balboa but is the reigning World Heavyweight Boxing Champion? What scene is necessary, until the title fight itself?
When is a scene? A scene is when there is a moment of change, or chance, or chance of change.
The World Heavyweight Boxing Champion’s training regime is a routine – it’s not a story, it isn’t an event. Rocky Balboa’s training montage is an extended moment of change, in that he’s becoming more and more capable of challenging for the title. With every weight he lifts, he increases the chance of change. With every weight the World Champion lifts, he decreases the chance of change. (The audience, who want a story, support the Underdog simply because if they don’t there’s nothing for them worth watching – unless they’re boxers looking to pick up training tips from the World Champion.)
Story-start: Was there any scene within what you wrote down that demanded a follow-up scene be written? This doesn’t necessarily have to be on the level of preparation for a major event such as a bank raid or a title fight. It could be as simple as someone making a doctor’s appointment or arranging to meet a friend for coffee.
More exactly, was there anything in your story-start where an A and a B had different approaches to the same problem?
And and and.