How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

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2 Responses to “How to Dig Deeper into a Scene”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Michelle Cruz Gonzales, Literature in Ukraine, Luke B. Goebel, Carrie Brownstein Recommends Books, and More - August 5, 2015

    […] Lessons in craft from a Justin Taylor short story. […]

  2. An Interview with Justin Taylor | Read to Write Stories - August 6, 2015

    […] To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here. […]

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