The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
In this short section Hills makes a simple point:
Most of what’s said about “scenes” in fiction, for instance, is derived from drama theory.
All you have to do is read Act II, Scene 3 to understand where he’s coming from. The word we use to describe a new place or time in a story comes from the world of live theater. But the mechanisms of such transitions are necessarily different for each medium.
As Hills notes, playwrights must confront the limitations of their medium, but the fiction writer faces few such obstacles. If you want your story to bounce from the mind of a woman standing on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to a montage of repair work on a spaceship overhead you can get there and back with little effort. (And yes, I know the theater can be incredibly inventive about such things as well.)
For the most part the tendency to create scenes in theatrical chunks is no longer common, both because theater is no longer the dominant form it once was and because mature examples of how to handle scenes abound in fiction. If there’s a tendency toward mimicry today, particularly for young writers, it’s to borrow not from theater but from film, television and even the computer. Yet while the power of the camera and of interaction can be considerable, that power is still constrained by the production demands of those mediums. Because prose uses only words it faces no such limitations.
All storytellers have ideas, images, even whole sequences drop into their heads. Sometimes it’s a character that hangs around a while, sometimes it’s a clever plot twist that springs to mind. What’s important in developing a story from initiating thoughts is considering how best to exploit those ideas in the medium of choice — or better yet, recognizing which medium is inherently best for a particular idea. And how you think of and handle scenes is going to go a long way to determining your success rate.
As an aside, it’s idle speculation on my part, but while re-reading this section I wondered if the appeal of flash fiction didn’t somehow relate to the power of the quick cut, the image, and particularly the panel of the graphic novel. Audiences are always learning how to read mediums in new and more complex ways, and evolution in one medium tends to spill over into others. Flash fiction may not simply be a shorter form applicable to the attention deficits of the information age, it may be the literary expression of the faceted artistic and social conversations we have adapted to and adopted on the internet.
Next up: Plot Structure.
— Mark Barrett
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