copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
The scene is the building block of the short story, the novel, or the screenplay. It features one or more characters; a conflict; dialogue, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, or some other representation of the character’s or characters’ thoughts and feelings; and, like the full-fledged story of which it is a part, a scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end that is developed climactically; and the scene advances a larger, specific purpose, such as developing the narrative’s overall plot, introducing an important character, intensifying suspense, complicating the story’s basic conflict, introducing or developing a related subplot, characterizing an important character, delineating the setting, and so forth.
In horror stories, whether in print or on film, the scene also usually (but not always) communicates something terrifying, horrific, or repulsive. What Edgar Allan Poe advises, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” concerning the short story (or narrative poem) as a whole applies also to the scene: it must be carefully plotted, with the single, unifying effect that is to be created in mind from the start, and everything in the scene should lead to the development of this effect. In short, one must know one’s purpose in writing the scene--what he or she means to accomplish by it--before putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. One must remember to connect one scene with the next through a series of cause-and-effect relationships. One scene, in other words, must logically lead to the next, and it, in turn, must lead to the one after it, and so forth, throughout the story. There mist be a reason, or purpose, for each scene. Otherwise, irrelevancies and confusion will be introduced into what, otherwise, might have been a meaningful and intelligible, perhaps even gripping, story.
In fact, whether the writer also happens to be an illustrator or not, he or she can make some rough pictures, similar to the sketches that make up a film’s storyboard, to indicate the scene’s basic purpose, structure, and Storyboards: What Are They? offers tips for storyboard construction that could aid writers in developing story scenes. The website’s article reduces the process to six steps:
- Think of your story as a video.
- In your first frame show an overview of your primary setting. Let the setting help communicate the point you want to get across or the mood you want to set.
- Make frames that show the 5 W’s. [These elements are identified as the scene’s “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” elements.]
- Identify the characters. [These characters are identified as the protagonist and the antagonist.]
- Plot. [Specify the problem, the climax, and the resolution, or the means by which the “problem is solved--which can lead directly to your message.”]
- Message. [This is the “moral, perspective on life or observation about life,” the theme, that the scene is intended to convey.]
Although it is not a horror story, the original Karate Kid movie offers a good model of the construction and use of scenes, as does It’s a Wonderful Life, My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music, to name but a few of many well-made stories.
In horror, Poe is a superb storyteller. Each of his scenes is deliberate and purposeful and leads plausibly to the next. Other master craftsmen and artists who are especially adept at the construction and sequencing of horror story scenes include Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Wes Craven, Christian Nyby, H. P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury. By studying how they create and use scenes, others may benefit, improving their own fiction by dissecting the work of the accomplished others who have gone before them.