When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.
A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming, and was published at The Literarian, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
Showing moments twice in a story gives you the opportunity to create parallels. In life, we tend to see something and then react when we see it again because the first experience has stayed with us. In fiction, letting this happen gives characters a chance to reveal more complex sides of themselves. It also provides a sense of depth of vision. The statue of liberty, for instance, might look small if shown by itself, but when a tourist is standing in front of it, you perceive its actual size. The same can be true for stories.
Haroutunian’s story contains two scenes with the same bronze SUV. The first time it appears, the main character, Rae, is walking home from school with her friend, Joanna:
The man inside yells, “How about youse sit on my dick?”
That’s the end of it. The man drives off. What’s more important is the girls’ reactions:
“Did he say ‘youse’?” Rae asks, shuddering.
Joanna rubs her arms as if she’s showering. “Dirty,” she says. “Bad grammar makes me feel dirty.”
“I bet he’s married,” Rae says. “My dad never believes me when I say that men do that. He can’t conceive of it.”
The scene ends with this bit of foreshadowing:
“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”
Of course, this means we’re expecting the dude to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). It begins in the same way:
Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.
The scene diverges from the first one in how the girls react:
Rae does not want to hear the rest of his sentence. “How about we fucking kill you?” she yells, kicking her foot in the direction of the car.
“I’m going to scream,” Joanna murmurs. “Let’s scream.”
“No,” Rae says, walking faster. “We’ll get in trouble if someone comes. He just wants attention—he’s full of shit.”
This reaction prompts a response from the man in the SUV:
“What are you going to do?” the guy asks, keeping pace with them. His voice is deep and mean; he’s also dropped the “youse.”
And this is how the scene ends:
Joanna grabs for Rae’s wrist and starts off toward someone’s yard. Rae leans back in opposition. Their tug of war paralyzes them in place. It’s not that she’s being stubborn by not changing course—the yard is full of shrubs, shrubs she can picture lying dead in.
He rolls down the window a little farther. No one is moving.
“I can see you,” Rae says, although she can’t. “We know what you look like.”
He says, “Oh yeah?” in this threatening way, like there’s more he has to say, but before he does, he pops open the passenger door. It swings so close it almost hits them.
Then they’re running.
It’s pretty clear how much this scene appearance of the SUV adds to the story. The first time it rolls up, the girls react the way anyone would: with surprise. It’d be unbelievable if they had the wherewithal to respond to the man in any meaningful way; few people have that kind of presence of mind. So, by reintroducing the SUV later, it gives the girls a chance to respond in almost premeditated way—in a way that reflects some essential thing about their characters. Because those essential things aren’t necessarily compatible with most people’s deeply embedded desire to avoid confrontation, their responses increase the dramatic tension.
On their own, these scenes don’t carry a ton of weight—though they’re certainly compelling. It’s when they’re put into the larger context of the story that they become truly interesting.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write a scene twice using “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian as a model:
- Write a short scene that interrupts the thread of the story. Fiction is often structured around routine; drama comes from the interruption of that routine. The routine can along the lines of “Everyday Joe read the paper at his favorite coffee shop until one day.” Or it can be the sort of routine that Haroutunian uses. The story begins with two high school girls talking and quick, awkward sexual encounter—pretty common high school behavior. Then the SUV rolls up. So, think about a story that you’re already writing or that you’ve written but which seems incomplete. Find a way to interrupt whatever routine the story has established. Here’s the catch: the interruption doesn’t need to seem significant at first. In “Youse,” the SUV drives away as quickly as it appeared. It’s only when it returns that it really impacts the story. So, don’t make too much of your interruption; just be sure it’s something that can be repeated in some way.
- End the scene with foreshadowing. This doesn’t need to be subtle. In “Youse,” the character says, “Next time that dude drives by…” The difference between that phrase and “Wow! Wasn’t that weird?” is the difference between the scene ending with no impact and ending with a bit of resonance that carries forward into the story.
- Write the scene again. This time, let your characters respond in a more thoughtful way. This is similar to those moments we all experience, when something happens and we think of the right thing to say only after the moment has ended. In your story, you’re basically giving your characters the chance to react the way that they wished they’d reacted the first time. The nature of this reaction will depend on the kind of story you’re writing and the context for the scene.
- Don’t put too much pressure on the scene. It’s no accident that “Youse” doesn’t end with the second appearance of the SUV. Instead, the story continues on, with the emotional impact of the scene carrying forward into what the story is really about—Rae’s relationship with her mom, in the aftermath of her father’s untimely death. So, don’t make your entire story about the scene. Simply use it as a way to provide depth of vision for the part of the story that is foregrounded.