Short Scene: Three Troubled Brothers

At long last, I’ve done a bit of fiction writing again! This scene is the beginning of a story idea that’s been in my head for a while. I want to say it’s a bit like a modern-day The Brothers Karamazov, except that I unfortunately have never read the whole book (yet). But like the excerpts and summaries I’ve read from TBK, this story focuses on three brothers with three different outlooks on life and faith. Maybe one day I’ll flesh this out into a full story or novel, but this is what we’ve got for now. Also, this is a fairly rough/rushed draft, so constructive criticism is welcome. Enjoy!

Scott shoved another bite of pancake into his mouth and chewed, wasting little time on savoring its sweetness as he went.

“You gonna be ready to go soon?” asked his father, glancing at the clock.

“In like ten minutes,” said Scott. “I just need to finish eating and then brush my teeth.”

“I’m almost ready!” Scott’s mother called, from the other room but quickly advancing in his direction. “Just need to find where I set my glasses down.” She stopped at the kitchen table. “How are the pancakes?”

“Good,” said Scott. “They’re always good.”Pancakes

“We have another thing of syrup, if you want it. I think we just ran out of the other one.”

“No, thanks. I’m good. I got some already.”

“You sure? I don’t mind getting it for you.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Oh, I’ve got to check on the other boys,” his mother said to no one in particular. She moved from the kitchen and knocked on an adjacent door.

“Hmm?” came a voice from inside. Scott kept chewing his pancakes, and tapped his fork sporadically as he listened.

“You almost ready for church, James?”

The voice was flat and unenthusiastic. “Yeah. I’ve been ready for a while.”

“Oh, but I haven’t seen you much. You’ve just been in your room the whole time.”

“I’ve been reading my Bible.”

“Kay.” A pause. “You want a quick breakfast before church?”

“Sure. I’ll come out in a minute.”

Scott heard the door close, followed by quick footsteps. “I’m a little worried about James,” his mother said in a harsh whisper as she grabbed the full container of syrup and set it on the table next to Scott. Scott scowled slightly.

“Why?” Scott asked.

“He spends all his time reading his Bible. I mean, I know it’s a good thing, but he’s not doing fun things that boys his age do. He doesn’t really play sports or video games or anything. And he doesn’t talk to us as much, either.”

“I don’t know,” said Scott. “I mean, it’s good that he’s reading his Bible.” As Scott said this, he was acutely aware that it was a good thing to read the Bible, because somewhere in the back of his mind he felt the sinking weight of knowing that he wasn’t doing it enough. He hadn’t read his own Bible in three days. Or was it four? Or more?

“I guess,” whispered his mother. “But he’s only fourteen, and he’s so serious! I’m just worried that he’s not having any fun.”

A brief patter of rapid footsteps was heard, and then the basement door swung open. “Oh, there’s Howard,” said the mother.

Howard sauntered to the table, grabbed a couple pieces of bacon, and began to ingest them quickly. He did not sit down.

“Morning, Howard,” said his mother. Howard nodded, his mouth full.

“You almost ready for church?” their mother asked. James quietly stepped out of his room and made his way toward the kitchen table. His father paced through the adjacent living room, adjusting his tie and gathering his things.

“I’m not going,” Howard uttered nonchalantly.

His mother scowled. “Not going?”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean you’re not going?”

Howard looked up at her. “I’m not going. We talked about this.”

Scott still sat at the table, finishing his pancakes and listening in uncomfortably. James was seated at the table too and had begun wolfing down a quick Pop Tart.

“I know we talked,” said their mother with a sigh. “I guess I was hoping you’d come to your senses by now.”

“I did,” said Howard. “I decided I’m not going to your stupid church anymore.”

“Howard.” His father stepped closer. “Respect your mother.”

“What? It’s true!”

“Howard.”

“You’re just mad because I’m not a Christian anymore.”

“I’m not mad,” said his father. “I never said I was mad.”

“We’re not mad,” said the mother, her voice rising. “We just don’t understand why you say you’re not a Christian anymore.”

“Because there’s no evidence for Christianity,” said Howard. “It doesn’t make logical sense.”

“That’s not true,” Scott spoke up.

“Truth is subjective,” Howard answered.

“No it’s not,” said Scott. “That doesn’t make sense. Facts are facts, whether people believe them or not. And there’s plenty of factual evidence for Christianity.”

“No there’s not. Faith is blind.”

James sighed quietly.

Scott spoke up again. “You’re wrong. It’s the truth. Just look at all the fulfilled prophecies, the historical evidence, the news today and everything—”

“Scott,” their father interrupted. “That’s enough fighting. Both of you.”

“I just don’t get it,” the mother interjected, her words pointed toward Howard. “Do you really think walking away from God is going to help you?”

“I didn’t do it to be helped,” said Howard. “I’m just following the evidence.”

“But, if you would just let God help you, I really don’t think you’d be so depressed all the time.”

“Mom, that’s not how it works.”

“Yeah,” Scott agreed. “Depression is psychological. I mean, I’m sure spiritual factors can coincide with it—”

“Scott,” said the father.

“What? I was agreeing with him this time. It’s a known scientific fact. Depression is psychological.”

“It’s just that we had to pay the hospital bills,” their mother continued loudly. “And drive out there to check on you every day, and everything. I don’t think you understand that this isn’t easy for the rest of us, either. And I don’t think you’d have all these problems if you would just come back to God again!”

“Whatever,” Howard said, grabbing the rest of his breakfast and marching away from the table back toward the basement. “I’m out of here.”

“Howard,” said his father.

“I’m not going to church with you!” Howard shouted.Church

“Fine. You don’t have to,” his father said calmly. “But don’t go too far. I want to talk to you when I get home.”

“Am I grounded?” Howard asked sarcastically.

“No. I just want to talk.”

“Whatever. I’m gonna do what I want. Soon I’ll be out of here for good anyway.”

His mother sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I’m nineteen!” Howard protested. “I’ve gonna move out sooner or later, once I can get the money!”

Scott took a deep breath. He was almost twenty-three, and also eager to move out, but so far his Bachelor’s Degree had been little help in finding him a stable job.

“Good luck with that,” said the mother. “You haven’t even been able to hold down a job.”

She was talking to Howard. Scott knew that she was talking to Howard. But he still drew another deep breath.

Howard rushed down the stairs without saying anything else.

The sound of Scott chewing his last bite of pancake was not enough to drown out the silence.

James spoke up. “I guess we should pray for him,” he offered feebly.

“We should get ready for church,” said his mother. “I just need to go find my glasses.” Her voice wavered and she walked off.

“I’ll go get my Bible,” said James, retreating back into his room.

Wordlessly, Scott got up to put his plate in the sink.

He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“Scott, I do want to thank you for your steadfastness,” said his father. “Whatever is going on with Howard has been…trying. But I do appreciate you staying true to what we’ve taught you and not going down that path.”

Scott froze for a minute, unsure of what to say.

He wanted to say, “Steadfastness? That’s not me. I haven’t been steadfast. I’m too selfish. I’m too prideful. I know God is there, but I’ve got to admit He feels distant sometimes. Sometimes the logical arguments seem more real to me than God as an actual person. And I can only blame my own sin and selfishness for that. I haven’t lost my faith, but I’ve lost my youthful idealism. I don’t have the same hope and joy and enthusiasm that I did when I was James’s age. Yes, I still believe in God, but I don’t have much hope in this world or in people anymore. Half the time I don’t even believe in myself. At least, not like everyone else does. Not like you do, Dad.”

Instead he said, “Uh, sure. Of course. You’re welcome.”

The Scene’s the Thing

Professor Gaumer, my Creative Writing teacher. A very interesting man.

“You can have a story without summary in it, but you can’t have a story without scene,” my Creative Writing professor told me during my junior year at college. It’s true, really. I can’t think of a single novel or short story that I’ve read or written that hasn’t utilized the concept of scene. I’ve read and even written some works without summary (it’s hard, but manageable), but it’s impossible to completely leave out scene. Therefore, today we’ll wrap up our discussion of scene and summary by talking about the concept of scene itself: what it is, how it works, and a few tips on when to not use it.

Two weeks ago, we defined scene as taking a short amount of fictional time and expanding it, filling it with details. A scene contains the present action and the dialogue. In writing parlance, summary is the “telling” of what happened, but scene is the showing. This is where you let your readers experience what’s going on in that exact moment in time, storywise. In a scene, you want the readers to be completely immersed in the events, not viewing them as outsiders who aren’t privy to the specifics of it. The scene’s the thing, as Shakespeare might have said if he was composing a play about Creative Writing (hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

One of my literary heroes.

So, characteristics of a scene: since you’re showing the event, this is where you’re going to use dialogue and sensory details to let the reader get involved with what’s going on in this relatively short period of fictional time. If the protagonist spills a cup of coffee on her husband, you’re probably going to give the husband’s verbal response, describe the sight of the dark liquid spreading across his immaculate white shirt, the protagonist’s horror at her clumsiness, etc. Those sorts of details make the scene come alive. We “see” the coffee spilling, “hear” the husband’s response, visualize the liquid staining his shirt, and sympathize with the protagonist’s embarrassment, because most of us have done something similar at some point in our lives. The details are what get the reader involved in the story. They utilize the 5 senses in a way that engages us, connects us to the story. The dialogue gets the story moving, provides character exposition, and allows us to get inside the heads of the dramatis personae. You can’t have sensory details or dialogue in summary; characters don’t speak and the author doesn’t describe things. That’s why scene is so important and necessary to a story and why you can’t have fiction without it. Without scene, all you have is a summary, like a synopsis on the dust jacket of a book or in a critic’s review. No one wants to read that, it’s boring. We want to experience the story, not just be told what happened.

If the plot isn't advanced by what happens on the park bench, summarize it.

Ok, so, what to avoid when using scene: first of all, don’t try to make your entire story consist of a scene, unless that story takes place over the space of a few minutes, no more than an hour (and even that is stretching it). It’s almost impossible to use scene in a story covering a long period of time, because it wearies the reader and bogs down the story. Using scene that way means you have to give details of every single event that happens in the entire time frame of the story, and we don’t want to read that. We don’t need to know everything Jake sees while sitting on the bench in the park for 3 hours. If nothing relevant to the plot happens in those 3 hours, summarize it. Even if a particularly witty piece of dialogue happens that you’re very fond of, cut it if it doesn’t move the plot along. Scene is great, but too much of it all at once makes a reader tired. On the other hand, don’t under use scene. It’s a very powerful tool, and yes, excess of it drags a story down, but it’s vital to the life of your writing. I’ve seen several aspiring writers try to avoid detail and dialogue in their works, so they sprinkle it very lightly in the story. It doesn’t work! It just gives the reader a taste of what’s going on in the story, and never really lets them connect to it. You WANT them to be involved, you want them to experience the story for themselves, especially during important revelations or turning points. Let the reader hear, see, taste, feel, and smell what’s happening. Otherwise, you’re cheating them out of what they’ve been waiting for and what they want in the story. Show, don’t tell.

Well, that wraps up this series on scene and summary. Hopefully it’s been of help to you in your writing. These two tools are very useful for any aspiring writer, so I hope you’ve learned how to use them in a way that will enhance your work, not drag it down. Scene and summary are vitally important….use wisely. Happy writing!

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

A story without scene and summary is just a blank page.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to take a good look at two technical elements of storycraft: scene and summary. Both of these elements are important tools for a writer to have and utilize, but it would rather difficult to go over both in much detail in the space of just one post. For purposes of today’s post, then, we’ll start by defining what both of these writing elements are, and I’ll provide some examples to help you understand the difference between them.

Let’s start with the easier of the two to define: summary. Most people know what summary is, and pretty much everyone uses summary in at least one of their stories. Most people use it in every story, actually. A concise definition of summary as it relates to creative writing is basically this: summary takes a large event or series of events and condenses it down to a short description of what happened. Example:

“This morning, I got up, got ready for school, ate breakfast, and then left to catch the bus.”

In that one sentence, you’ve been given the basic events of an entire morning. It glosses over what happened, giving you the bare minimum of details for you to understand what’s been happening. It’s telling, not showing. You know the narrator got ready for school, but you don’t know what his/her morning routine consists of, what clothes they decided to wear, or whether or not he/she brushed their teeth. You know exactly what happened, but none of the sensory details that fill in the gaps of the events, or even any dialogue. 2-3 hours of occurences have been summarized for you just like that, in one sentence.

Scene, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of summary. Scene takes a relatively short occurrence and expands it, filling it with details. Everyone uses scenes in their work, of course, but not everyone realizes that that’s what they’re doing. The concept is a little hard to completely understand for some people, so I’ll provide an example:

This image is copyrighted by Alan Reaver, and can be found on his website along with his other works.

“I stared at my alarm clock groggily. ‘How can it be 7 am already?’ I grumbled to myself. ‘I really don’t want to get out of bed right now. It’s too warm and comfortable right here.’ I snuggled deeper into the blankets, trying to ignore the golden rays of sunlight that streamed in through the cracks in the blinds and turned my covers bright orange. I was on the point of stubbornly drifting off to sleep again, when I suddenly sat bolt upright. ‘Oh, darn it. I have a math exam in first period,’ I moaned, sliding out of bed and running my hands through the horrible black mess of hair. ‘That’ll take forever to untangle…'”

See the difference? Just waking up and getting out of bed takes several sentences. There’s concrete details (the narrator’s black hair, the sunlight streaming in, etc.), dialogue/internal monologue, and sensory perceptions. The writer has chosen to take an event that’s maybe a minute long, and cover it in an entire paragraph. He or she sees this event as important, so they’ve made it detailed and exciting, making sure the reader focuses on it and remembers it. Short event, long description.

Don’t worry if it takes you a while to get the definitions down. Someone had to explain scene to me 3 or 4 times before it finally sank in. Next week, we’ll talk about summary’s importance in narrative craft, as well as when to use it…and when you should avoid it at all costs. Happy writing!