Scenes Are Not Stories

I like scenes. Not the subculture. I’m talking about small snippets of larger stories, movies, plays, etc. I get excited for scenes when I’m reading or watching something. The setting, the premise, the props… I observe scenes like vignettes more than a piece of a larger whole. I only came to this realization this week during a conversation with my wife. We were talking about movies—I don’t remember which—when I mentioned the director and some other works they’d done. She revealed to me that she doesn’t know any directors other than Quentin Tarantino. She said she doesn’t understand people who follow directors.

Don’t worry, we’re okay. We’ll make it through this.

When I take the time to consume a movie or series, it’s for one of two reasons: it’s a documentary, or I like the director. I very rarely watch things for entertainment. She asked me why the director is important and I had to think about that for a bit. As you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, it’s their ability to craft compelling scenes. Camera angles, colors, lighting, characterizations, dialogue delivery… I soak in the details—signatures—that make their films uniquely their own. For me, the director’s style is as important if not more important than the script.

This also applies to authors, but I’m much more adventurous when reading. I don’t stick to a handful of authors that I trust. I believe that has to do with the medium. Authors must craft compelling scenes as part of their narrative exercise. They can’t rely on set dressing and camera angles to carry the tone of a story. I get excited for a cool setting, or prop, but it’s the scenes that carry the story for me. Give me something unexpected and engaging and you’ll have me hooked.

This is a new revelation for me. This is why I struggle to tell stories. Stories are about character growth and I don’t often care about that. When I read, I don’t care if the characters are “flat.” I care if they do interesting stuff. I still find myself emotionally invested in characters—some have even made me cry—but when I talk about the books that I read, I rarely talk about the characters’ growth.

I love Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, but I would never describe it as a story about a young girl with an uncertain future and self-doubt who rises to become a powerful leader who usurps the evil, immortal emperor. That’s what the story is about. Vin’s arc is a triumph—but I’ve heard this story a thousand times. I don’t get excited about the vagabond comeuppance. I get excited about the details. The mists and the coinshots and the cloaks and the seething darkness that surrounds everyone and everything.

You know from the first time you meet the main character of any story that in the end, they will either succeed or fail to overcome the conflict introduced in the first act. That’s the story. We read to find out. We read to become champions of that character. Good authors can make us step into that character and go through their struggles along with them. Good authors craft scenes that compel the character onward. Why don’t they stop and go home? Why don’t they take the easy way out? Simple, that doesn’t make for a good story!

I think in scenes. I want to craft cool scenes with fascinating characters and interesting premises but, again, scenes don’t tell stories. My mind doesn’t think about the characters’ growth. I want to take a character with strengths and flaws and plop them into uncomfortable or interesting situations to see what happens. It might be possible to string some of these scenarios together to create a complete story, but I struggle with that every time.

I come up with scenes often. They pop into my head fully formed and I write them out. These tidbits litter my hard drives and journals. A thousand starts and none of them complete. I thought I’d share one that I wrote this week. It came to me while I was out on my daily walk. This is the first draft with zero edits. Exactly as I first typed it.

Donnie stepped out his front door that morning with every intention to never return. This would come true, but not for the reasons he intended. Donnie left because he was done, fed up, over it—Donnie stayed away because there was nothing to go back to.

He didn’t make a spectacle of his exit. He didn’t pack his things, write a note, or do anything else that would alert an observer to his attention. He did, however, say goodbye to his front door with a soft, caring touch. That front door had been witness to many of Donnie’s fondest, proudest, and horrific memories. It was an old friend that kept out the cold and uninvited while keeping the secrets of everything within.

Donnie turned left at the end of his walk, just as he had every morning since moving here. He held his head high and glanced about the street as he walked casually on. He gave a curt nod to the older gentleman that lived a few houses down and sat on his stoop each morning with his coffee and cigarettes to keep him company. The man waved back. He always waved back. Donnie didn’t know his name, but for nearly 12 years he had waved to this person every morning and today was no different—despite intentions or consequences.

Shortly after Donnie passed, the man on the stoop gathered up his things and shuffled back indoors with a deep pull on his cigarette. Donnie didn’t have to look back to know this to be true—it was their routine. I see you, you see me, now we can both go about our day. A little dance performed between two strangers. Donnie knew the man knew that this was their last day together. Of course the man knew. It was absurd to think that this daily gesture had gone on so long without pretense. The man knew and that was why Donnie was never coming back.

Who is Donnie? What does he want? Why can’t he have what he wants? Who is the man on the stoop? What does he want? These are the questions that authors need to ask themselves to tell a story. Is the story about Donnie? If so, I need to figure out what’s going on in his world that’s preventing him from achieving his goal. Then I need to make him fight through that to either succeed or fail at his goal. That’s what all writing advice you ever read will tell you. Story means change and change means conflict. Characters need to go through conflict to grow.

I believe I know who or what Donnie is, but I didn’t define any of that before writing that scene. I saw this dude leaving his house and started writing about it. It was a fun bit of exploratory writing. I enjoy these exercises, but I would also like to tell Donnie’s story. Only, I don’t know what that story is. I want to plop Donnie into little scenes and see what he does. Donnie is paranoid but capable. He’s sure of himself but cautious and vigilant at all times. He’s a loner but can fake social graces when needed. I want him to be uncomfortable. I want to see him squirm. Where do I take Donnie to tell that story? I have no idea.

What will come of it? Most likely nothing like everything else littering my hard drive. I’ve written the part I became excited about at that moment. Finding the energy to keep going is the struggle. I will be inspired again, but will it be about Donnie? That’s never happened before, so it’s unlikely. Today, I might take a walk and inspiration will compel me to write another scene. I’ll write that scene and file it away somewhere. I’ll write every time the inspiration hits. I like the writing—but at some point, I’d like to write a complete story worth reading.

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