Shaun Levin

The Scene that Must Be Written

In Writing on March 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm

It starts like a whisper, an idea, something overheard, a faint sound, or like a need, a thing you’ve been meaning to do without first knowing it was there, and then it’s there. And you know that without it you won’t be able to go on. Not properly. You have to write it. The rest of the work depends on it. Oh, you try and skim past it, the way we ignore people who are central to our lives – a neighbour, an old friend, a family member – but we have to talk to them eventually, or forever be aware of their absence. That’s what it’s like with The Scene that Must Be Written.

There are other things you could do instead. You could wash the dishes, clean your desk, do something frivolous like check for responses to your new profile on match [dot] com, or maybe you should have set one up on Guardian Soulmates. Wouldn’t that be more your type, the intellectuals, the successful media people, that sort of thing.

But the scene will still be there tomorrow, so you might as well write it, might as well start, in fragments, in broad brushstrokes, in sketches with a tentative pencil. And there’s that moment before you start writing The Scene that Must Be Written, a scene in which you know more or less what will happen; you know who’s in it, where it takes place, and what the outcome will be. Everything is in your head and you just need to put it down on the page. That’s how it feels. Like standing at a door that is closed, your hand on the doorknob, taking a deep breath.

Often it’s a scene you weren’t planning on, a scene that has appeared because there is a gap in your novel. It’s a kind of bridge, an important moment, a thread. Sometimes it’s okay to jump for A to C, and it can be very satisfying for the audience, the reader, whomever, to imagine what that B is. But sometimes you have to write the B. In Kevin Powers’ beautiful book The Yellow Birds, he had to write the scene of what really happened to Murph, and you can see how the telling keeps getting postponed, avoided in the way painful retellings are, but then it gets told. It got written. Maybe the scene was the first thing to be written. Either way, it had to be written.

When you’re finally writing the scene the rest of the work disappears and all you want is The Scene. It builds up over time, every day. Maybe it takes a week to write, but from the moment you start writing it it begins to feel real, and suddenly you can see the bench they’re sitting on, and you know what the weather’s like, and how close they are and despite their gloves they’re holding hands because they need all the warmth they can get. It’s winter in Glasgow. On day two you can hear what they’re saying to each other. On day three you’re writing the confrontation with the drunken man, the confrontation you’ve been avoiding because you’re not sure you can do it right. Maybe you’ll get the speech wrong, maybe someone in Glasgow wouldn’t talk like that, maybe they wouldn’t respond to him like that.

There are a million ways to avoid a scene.

And only one way to make one: Write it. Risk making a fool of yourself. Write the first thing that comes to mind. Let you characters say whatever they want. It’s just a draft, it’s just you getting to know the scene. Writing a scene is improv on a stage with no audience. If there’s anything harder than improv in front of an audience, it’s improv in front of an empty theatre. That probably isn’t true, but it might be.

Write the scene and forget the rest of the work. Allow the scene to be the only thing that exists. All there is at this moment, for this hour, this week, however long it takes for The Scene that Must Be Written to be written.

Maybe what I mean is that every part of the story has to be written. Whether it stays in or not is up to us. It kind of links to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Once it’s written, once you know what it is, it’ll be in the final story whether you put it in or not. Hemingway believed that sometimes “the omitted part would strengthen the story.” But you can only omit what you know. You can only omit a scene after the scene has been written. Once it’s been written, the knowledge is there in the story.

  1. […] And what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll write it and it’ll be wrong and you’ll start all over again. But at least once you’ve written it, it will have been written. […]

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