by Ian J. Miller
Why have a static scene, and what do you put in it? The most obvious reason is to get an emotional response, so I thought that I should start this by asking, what piece of writing has impressed me the most on that plane?
One scene came to mind before all others, a short scene from “Anna Karenina”, and one that I rather fancy most will have considered padding, the sort of scene the average editor would delete for not moving the story onwards, yet I remember it over 40 years after reading it.
It depicts a grain harvest; you sense the swish swish swish of the scythes, the heat, the dust, and the stop for refreshments. Why would that make an impression? Possibly because I had worked in grain fields (admittedly with combine harvesters) and I know how to use a scythe, so to some extent I understood what was going on. I could feel it. To make an impression, I think you have to be able to get the reader into the scene and in Tolstoy’s time, peasants harvesting grain would be something most people could relate to. Of course you also need skill as a writer, and Tolstoy was a master.
However, if you keep writing static scenes, the book goes nowhere, which is why editors love to delete static scenes. However there are reasons to do use them, even in a thriller: you cannot remain at a climax for extended periods of time. To have a second climax, you have to come down from the first and have a period that is relatively tension-free, which is at least one correct place for a “beautiful scene”. The problem then is, if you have one such scene, it may well look hopelessly out of place; if you have many, the book will be longer than what agents will tolerate. In Tolstoy’s time, well-written long books were delights; now maybe less so.
How to write it is more difficult, and I am not necessarily the right person to describe the process. One critical point, in my opinion, is to have a clear rhythm. The objective is to get a favourable emotional response from the reader, and an awkward sentence construction merely distracts the reader. I also favour repetition. I know! Editors hate repetition, but in any art, all rules can be broken if you know what you are doing.
“Clever” words should perhaps be avoided, because you are trying to draw out an emotional response from the reader, and that will be spoiled by visits to the dictionary. Also, it helps to find a rhythm. Finally, the best way is probably for the author to feel the scene, to insert him/herself into it. If the author can be lost in the scene that is intended to gain an emotional response, it will either succeed, or be an outright disaster. The latter option is part of the reason you might need careful editing some time later.
Another trick that I think may be useful is to break the description, by inserting something else in between the two pieces. Whether this advice is any good can be judged, I guess, from my own writing. Here is a description from Miranda’s Demons.
He knew Mars was a small planet, but the size of the features seemed to defy logic. He was looking out from the northern end of the Bosporus Rupes, cliffs that ran for several hundred kilometers on the northwest of Argyre Planitia. Before him lay a scene of total desolation, yet in its own way, a haunting beauty.
In the distance, the rims of craters broke the line of the horizon. Closer, slabs of harsh red rock with near vertical faces jutted upwards from the otherwise near flat plain. A great scree of rock fell from one such face on the block to his right. But it was the colours which took his breath away; the floor of the plain immediately in front was bright red, to the left were outcrops of bright yellow brown, but to the south were outcrops of distinct grey. Never before had he seen such variety.
That was followed by a paragraph and a half telling why he was there, followed by (the split description)
It was a tedious task, but one which gave him perhaps a unique opportunity to see Mars in its full glory and its total desolation. Thousands of kilometers of red dust, red rock, pink sky, red rock twisted in the strangest shapes, red rock in blocks of immense grandeur, gigantic red river valleys totally without water, red rock outcrops smoothed by the continual light sanding over four billion years. Mars had every shade of red-brown imaginable.
So, why is that there? Basically, to slow the story, to create a scene of relative peacefulness before the hectic chase scene that is about to build up. In my opinion, tension is much more effective if it follows a complete lack of it.
Alternately titled The Static Scene.
Guest post contributed by Ian J. Miller, who writes science fiction and techno thrillers, and publishes these as ebooks only.