Saturday, August 11, 2012

Scenes and Shakespeare by the Sea

Yesterday, I went to Point Fermin in San Pedro to watch Romeo and Juliet. At night it was still chilly enough for me to have to wear my jacket. Luckily, Bartholomew and his wife brought wine and beer to keep us warm.  

The performance was excellent, I thought. Beyond that, this particular play by Shakespeare has its own sense of doomed innocence that speaks of our world, even today. 

But, that is not why I went yesterday. I wanted to refresh my ideas about plays before writing about scenes--I watch plenty of movies, but not enough plays. In my neverending quest to understand fiction, I've come across many misconceptions. If you recall, in the post about "show, don't tell", I mentioned I stopped using the term "scene" when speaking of fiction. 

Here is why:

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I don't own newer books on fiction and writing--they are all like cookbooks with recipes, formulas, mantras aimed at simplifying the writing process. Now, I don't have anything against writers giving advice, but the advice handed down in these books is of a prescriptive nature: If you follow these simple steps, you'll produce award winning (best selling) fiction! 

Aside from offering formulas and mantras, these writing books don't really discuss writing. They don't help you understand things beyond a superficial level. I often read from a "textbook" on writing from the 1970s by Rust Hills. It doesn't give you formulas. It just discusses the elements of fiction, writing in general, and techniques. That little book provides a very different experience. You are not asked to mimic examples to get you on your way; it asks that you stay and read things and read things again and think about them. 

One of the issues it delves into is the misconception about scenes in prose fiction. Even decades ago, this writer knew there is something problematic about saying that a novel or short story contains scenes. It struck me and made me curious. And when I get curious about something, I analyze it to death. 

I discovered the words in that old book were very true. The simple production of Romeo and Juliet proved that a scene in theater is different than what we do in a short story or novel. And this is also true of scenes in film. 

Of course, I would be lying if I said there aren't similarities between the three--they use some of the same elements of fiction for one. But, consider that an apple and an orange are also similar; they are both fruits and share the observable characteristics of fruits. However, anyone who has ever eaten an apple and an orange knows that the differences far outweigh the similarities. 

It is the same between theater and film and prose fiction.  

In theater, a scene is part of an act. It is a continuous element and actors only get one shot at executing their performances--no one yells, "cut!" when an actor makes a mistake. The sets of a scene are carefully constructed and are static while the action takes place, but no less helpful in setting the mood and tone. 

In a film, a scene is composed of shots. Actors may perform the action in a shot multiple times. And during editing, some elements may be altered to fit the overall vision of the filmmaker. And naturally, there is freedom in a film too as the action may take place in real world settings instead of a fabricated stage set. 

Watch a movie and watch a play. Do you see how vastly different one is from the other? There are similarities, sure, but the differences far outweigh them. Neither is better than the other--the word "better" does not apply. They are different forms of art and enjoyable in their own unique ways. It is because of this that it confuses me to hear a writer talk about a scene in a novel or short story or read those books about writing fiction that have formulas on how to write "engaging scenes." 

So, what is it that we do in fiction if not craft scenes? 

The author narrates a series of events with prose that is often laced in varying degrees with their voice or the voice of the narrating character if the story is in First Person. Depending on the author's intent, they may go into vast detail about some events (which many writers mistake as scenes) or they may summarize all but one event or a sequence of events. These events contain action that helps to develop the other elements of fiction, like characterization and plot.

I have said it before and will say it again. All you really need to learn to write fiction is to read a published work of fiction, novel or short story.  

And that's all the confusion I'm going to share today. I'm working on the posts about the revision process and reading The Quantum of the Past and preparing to dive into Ascension and thinking about the next short story I'm going to submit to the Writers of the Future Contest, etc. etc. etc.

And so it goes.


LC