How to Write a Scene that Can’t Be Avoided

25 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Some stories have been told so often that, if you try to write one, certain scenes become inevitable. For instance, every sports movie will have its “Rocky Balboa at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art” scene. Every teacher/student movie will contain a version of the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ literature students stand on their desks and recite poetry as he exits the room after being fired. If you’re writing these stories, the problem is not finding a way to avoid the scene but figuring out how to reinvent it.

Benjamin Reed has done exactly that in “King of the Jungle,” a story of unrequited love featuring Tarzan. The story was published in Arcadia Magazine, where you can read it now: King of the Apes

How the Story Works

Any story about unrequited love will include this scene: the frustrated lover crying out in anguish. The moment cannot be escaped, but because every reader will know it’s coming, the writer must find a way to reinvent it. Here is how Reed handles the moment with Tarzan:

Then I received a letter from Jane, at last. She’d read about me in the Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and of course, National Geographic. Although Jane was happy for my new success, she was not necessarily pleased that I had followed her to America. She would not be on the next train to New York. She hoped we could speak again, someday. She closed with a long apology and signed her name in bold, flowery script. In the postscript she stated that she’d married a real estate agent and moved to Des Moines.

Oh, naturally I was bitter. But I was too deeply incarcerated by my new lifestyle to let anyone know how I actually felt. I mean, I wasn’t about to go shouting on the steps of the school chapel, beating on my breast like a goddamn gorilla!

In short, Reed has his character say that he will not participate in such a scene. However, it’s one thing to do this and quite another to make it work. Reed pulls it off by doing two important things:

  1. He creates a character who has limitations. There are certain things that Tarzan will never do. The Book of Proverbs (King James Version) says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In a way, this pride and spirit define all great characters. They would rather suffer than negate some essential part of themselves. This is true of real people as well. People who do not draw personal, moral, or ethical lines tend to be viewed negatively. As Aaron Tippin once sang, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” (And that marks the first and only time I will juxtapose Aaron Tippin with King James.) In Reed’s story, Tarzan will never reveal his anguish by publicly beating his chest like a gorilla because it would betray the identity that he’s worked so hard to create (he’s a man, not a monkey). And why did he create that identity? Out of love for Jane.
  2. He writes the scene that his character promised to resist. Remember, the scene is inevitable. It’s been part of the unrequited love story for a very long time. So, you have no choice but to write it. The key is to make the scene the result of something that is only tangentially related to the love story. That way, the scene comes as a surprise. Reed writes his scene in summary, after one of many nights in which he’s ended up with “buxom Jewish girls from Brooklyn, secretaries and bookkeepers for lawyers.” He drunkenly goes to the top of the Empire State Building:

I’d take the elevator calmly, but once on the deck in the night sky, I’d tear open my shirt and howl my famous cry to the beasts and the birds, my chest heaving, the buttons of my shirts bouncing over the concrete deck like a broken string of pearls. I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.

In a story with an ages-old plot line, you likely won’t avoid the inevitable scenes. But you can make them seem fresh and unexpected by building them into the the character’s limitations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write an inevitable scene using Ben Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” as a model:

  1. Create a character who has limitations. What line does your character draw in the sand? When does he or she say, “I will never do that.” One way to explore those limits is by asking the character to define herself. Treat it like an interview or the Baltimore Catechism: Who are you? Where do you come from? Think categorically: witty, Catholic, Polish, free spirit. Then ask what it would take for those answers to be negated—for the character to no longer be that person, for the character to no longer claim his/her place of origin or be claimed by it.
  2. Find the act that would break those limits. The act should do two things. First, it should force the character into a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Or, it should force the character to do something that goes against how she defines herself. Secondly, it should result from something tangential to the plot. So, if the plot is a love story, the act should result from something love related—but not the key relationship itself. Reed does this by letting Tarzan sleep with women who are not Jane. Rather than making him happy, though, these interactions heighten his anguish. As a result, he acts in a way that breaks the limits he’s set for himself.
  3. Write a scene with the forbidden act and the character’s justification for it. To make the act make sense to the reader, it’s necessary for it to make sense to the character. This is why Reed has Tarzan say about his howl atop the Empire State Building, “I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.” He justifies his self-effacing act with the justification of fame. He’s doing what is expected of him, and it’s his right. So, let your character excuse the act that he/she commits.

Good luck!

Advertisements

One Response to “How to Write a Scene that Can’t Be Avoided”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Benjamin Reed | Read to Write Stories - February 27, 2014

    […] To read “King of the Apes” and an exercise on unrequited love and writing inevitable scenes, click here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: