Dramatic Situation Vs. Dramatic Scene: Win the Fight Against Poor Form
I. Hemingway’s Thoughts on Interior Decoration
Ernest Hemingway said that “prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Some of us might not like to think of fiction as something so architectural, something so concrete as, well, concrete. But we’d do better to interpret Hemingway's statement as encouragement to see fiction not as blue-print or mathematical formula, but as form. The difference between the two is the difference between an erector-set and a wheel-thrown vase.
Question one: What determines the form of an art that can only be built word by word on a flat blank page?
As Gardner and Dunlop say in Forms of Fiction, “Form is the meaningful organization and arrangement of various elements in a work—character, action, setting, theme, style, point of view—to produce a coherent whole.” Form isn’t the mold or container or “formula” for a work of fiction, any more than the form of a bronze sculpture is the remnants of its plaster cast. But two items gone missing off Gardner and Dunlop's list belong on Milk Cartons nationwide: Dramatic Situation and Dramatic Scene.
Question two: Why are formal decisions regarding Dramatic Situation and Dramatic Scene selection so important?
As Walpole says of form, “[…] there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds and preserves substance—saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding.” Too often, our first drafts are tepid pudding—okay, maybe a more modern American comparison is bland boxed mashed-potatotos—because the stories suffer from a lack of form. This lack of form is often due not to a lack of the ingredients mentioned by Gardner and Dunlop, ingredients with which we’re all obsessed (and rightfully so)—character, action, setting, style, defined point of view. Instead our stories suffer from formal decisions made regarding dramatic structure. Either (1) from a poorly defined dramatic situation, or (2) a disproportionate amount of scenes needed to properly milk the drama from the dramatic situation at hand.
II. Drop In and See What Situation Your Situation Is In
Georges Polti’s 1945 book, Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, contained outlines of thirty-six situations creating the story-conflict in works of Literature. Perhaps this signals, as Polti intended, that there are fewer dramatic situations than we think it is possible to write, that we tell the same stories again and again. But we shouldn’t waste our time worrying about that. We’ve got writing to do. More importantly, his book signals that there are only so many dramatic situations that one poem, one story, one film or novel, can adequately and dramatically explore. Damon Knights says, in Creating Short Fiction, that, “A situation is a slice of the story […] A dramatic situation is unstable—you know it can’t stay this way forever—and it has at least two possible outcomes, one very desirable and one not.” A slice of the story. In other words, there’s more story to tell, but this particular dramatic situation is the one, the only one, that belongs to us.
III. Get Some Gregor Samsa in Your Life
A lot of comedians have great jokes and are like, why isn’t this working? It’s not working because the audience does not understand the premise. If I set the premise up right, the joke will always work. -Chris Rock
One helpful way to think about your dramatic-situation is to lay it out as your premise. This might work as a strong first line or it might end up in your trash bin, but either way you need to know your premise as surely as you know that you’ve never seen Chris Rock and Franz Kafka referenced in the same line of an article.
A good example is the first line of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
But the premise doesn’t have to be laid out in the first sentence. Take a look at this excerpt from the first piece of Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer In A Day”.
"Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?"
"Look, look; see for yourself!"
The children pressed to each other like so many roses, so many weeds, intermixed, peering out for a look at the hidden sun.
It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.
"It's stopping, it's stopping!"
And though, yes, the first two examples come from speculative works that need a bit more setting up than the average literary-realism, compare them to these excerpts from the beginnings of two stories published in well-known forums for literary fiction.
This is the first line from "The Last Copy" by Ariel Dorfman, which first appeared in The Atlantic.
Oh my God, she would know. As soon as she’d read the book, she’d know that he had lied to her.
And this first line from Lawrence Osborne’s Volcano, which first appeared in Tin House and has since appeared in 2012’s Best American Short Stories.
Six months after she divorced her husband, Martha Fink packed her bags and flew to Honolulu to attend a lucid-dreaming seminar at the Kalani resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As an exercise, try to write one sentence that contains your character’s name, the setting, the character's external conflict, and the first step they plan to take to address it. Which scenes of your first draft inform this premise? Which do not? The ones that do not may be doing some work to establish the natural series (as opposed to the dramatic series) of your story, but how can these be folded into summary or combined with scenes that are doing dramatic work?
Which brings us to…
IV. My Kind of Scene
Scene: all that is included in an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another. The action within a scene is “unbroken” in the sense that it does not include a major time lapse or a leap from one setting to another. It may include flashbacks or brief authorial interruptions for background explanation. The efficient and elegant writer makes each scene bear as much as it can without clutter or crowding, and moves by the smoothest, swiftest transitions from scene to scene. -Gardner
It’s not the size of the scene, it’s the motion of the drama--or something like that. According to The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri, “Every scene in a play is obligatory. The difference between scenes is that the vehemence of each should mount over that of the last.” That vehemence can only mount upon a clearly defined premise.
Our scenes have a lot of work to do. Much of their work is, beginning at the premise, to increase story-tension. It is within this constraint that the drama reaches its climax; the same way that a violin string produces a higher pitch the farther we move up the neck of the instrument, the scenes only achieve higher pitch when we move along the neck of the premise. Too many dramatic-situations or premises, and it’s one man trying to play several violins at once.
John Braine’s Stages of the Novel informs us when Braine says "a story isn’t a kernel of story with a softer narrative substance around it, it’s the same consistency all the way through.” Look at his comment about writing the novel: “At this point the story should be reduced to synopsis form and divided into at least twenty chapters.” That “at least twenty chapters” is key. For a moment, ask the bohemian inside of you to smoke a bowl (if you’re in Colorado or Washington) and disregard the schoolmarm tone Braine’s taking with us reckless writers of fiction. Notice that what Braine’s saying is that a novel requires at least twenty chapters, made up likely of several scenes, to properly and fully explore the novel’s dramatic situation.
Take a look at this short narrative poem translated by Ezra Pound. As you read this poem, try to take note of the dramatic situation, “girl meets boy, girl loses boy,” and then take note of how many scenes there are. For the purpose of this exercise count a scene as any change in location and/or leap in time.
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
My breakdown is a matter of opinion, but I think we’ll generally agree. There’s at least one scene in the first stanza—the meeting, followed by a summary that the couple “went on living.” In stanza two, we get a summary of their marriage, followed by at least one scene, but maybe more, showing us the narrator’s bashfulness when called by other men. Another scene gives us the narrator at fifteen, and yet another scene the next year, when the narrator’s husband departs. The last part of stanza four introduces us to the present, a kind of flash-forward to a scene in which the monkeys make their sorrowful noises. Then we leap from scene to scene: a flashback of the husband dragging his feet, the moss grown in there now, the leaves falling in Autumn, the butterflies yellowed with august. Time passes.
By my count that’s a minimum of eight scenes in one poem that fills, at most, one-half of a page. More often than not, our first drafts of stories will contain no more than three to five scenes. I'd wager these scenes also contain fewer than three characters, and even have similar settings. The next time you’re reading a short story, a novel, or watching a film, count how many scenes the writer has used to milk every ounce of drama from their premise.
If we clearly define our premise, and we dedicate a significant number of scenes to that premise, we ensure that we have the most deft-manipulation over the drama that premise provides. In other words, despite the boring shape of the page, the shape of our story is dynamic and it's all our own.
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