Overview.

The assignment is for practice creating scenes for stories.  A story in a series of interrelated scenes with beginning, middle, and some resolution that allows movement to the next scene.  Scenes are built with dialogue, narrative description, careful attention to perspective, imagery, momentum, structure, and story purpose.  These exercises are like learning scales before trying to play music.

What to do.

Study the photograph.  Make up a scene with people interaction.  Find conflict, action, and resolution so that you have a line of momentum thruogh the piece.  Determine how you would see this piece contributing to a longer story with multiple scenes–short story or novel.  Be sure time and place are introduced subtly in the flow of the writing.  And send it in if you would like commentary.

Note.  This exercise was originally posted on storyinliteraryfiction’s Facebook page where new exercises are posted periodically.  You might find them useful as an adjunct to your writing schedule.

This is Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans, at the side of St. Louis Cathedral and home of Pirate’s Alley Bookstore, owned by Joe DeSalvo, who with Rosemary James and Kenneth Holditch founded the Faulkner Society. William Faulkner stayed in the house in 1924, now bookstore, when working on his first novel Soldier’s Pay.
For practice, use the setting to write dialogue among three people. A couple from Ohio in a bad marriage and a native scam artist trying to sell them a tee shirt, ostensibly for money for the poor, but stolen and over priced even if new. He is a scary, disheveled figure with a flat affect and aggressive. The man wants to buy the shirt, feigning that it’s a great souvenir, and get away as fast as possible without trouble. The woman gets angry with the man and her husband and wants to berate the man for the crook he is, let him know he should find Christ and a different life. Write a scene mainly in dialogue that provides characterization, action, and conflict.


   Work submissions for Assignment 15: Creating Scenes: practice writing

Marie emerged from the cathedral into the slushy April heat of the French Quarter, squinting her eyes against the sudden grey glare. The sticky heat made it difficult to breathe and pasted her blouse to her skin like a sausage casing. She moved heavily towards Pirate’s Alley, where Nick was waiting. New Orleans for their anniversary…what had they been thinking?

“Hail the supplicant!” Nick bellowed at her as she approached the café. His fleshy cheeks were already pink and even from this distance she could make out the bottle on the table and smell the dank sweetness on his breath.

“Meek and mild the Lenten prayers, ma belle Marie?!” He stood up ceremoniously, pulling a chair from the table. “I love it when you pray,” he whispered in her ear as she sat down. “Your sanctimony is hot as hell.”

“Don’t be disgusting,” she muttered, glancing self-consciously up and down the street. A waitress stood stock-still in the open doorway of the café. For a moment, Marie wondered if she was made of wax.

The grille of the chair pressed hard against her bottom and back as Nick pushed the seat under the table. “Nick.” she hissed. “Please!”

“Yes of course, my dear, I shall please. Drink?” Nick walked around to the other side of the table, sat heavily and poured. Two melting ice cubes jostled against the walls of the glass as he slid it toward her. “Drink.”

“It’s barely lunchtime for fuck’s sake.” Her words came out more softly than she’d intended, like a plea, and her face flushed.

“Indeed. Far too late to turn back now.” His direction turned toward the waitress whose pose hadn’t moved an inch. “Sweetheart! A glass for my sober wife, would you?” The girl glared at them for a moment and disappeared into the shadow of the restaurant.

Nick struck a match noisily and lit a cigarette over his words. “If you think one prayer of yours can absolve us, cherie, you’ve got another penance coming.”

Marie looked vaguely in the direction of the cathedral. Colorfully painted doorways and cascades of wisteria and palm brightened the alley with mocking gaiety.

“I feel sick,” she said.

“Tee shirt for the lovebirds? Every purchase is generously donated to charity.” A hawker was suddenly standing beside their table. His sallow face was cross-hatched with strange red marks and he carried a milk crate half-filled with surprisingly new looking, folded tee shirts.

“Confederacy of dunces.” Nick muttered under his breath as he stood up to face the man.

At that moment the waitress arrived and slapped a fresh glass of ice onto the table. The salty stench of the hawker hung thick in the humid air.

“Nick, don’t. I’m going to be sick,” Marie said, without moving.

“Just sip and play nice,” Nick hissed at her, pouring Herbsaint onto the ice and flicking his cigarette across the street. Marie watched it roll to the edge of the wrought iron fence beyond which lush trees and flowers were growing.

“Whaddaya got? I’ll pay double.”

“Brand new tee shirts for you and your lovely lady. Just twenty dollars each. All proceeds go directly to charity.”

“Sure they do buddy.”

Nick shoved forty dollars into the milk crate and removed a tee shirt. It was black with ‘I’M GONNA MAKE HIM AN OFFER HE CAN’T REFUSE’ printed on it in white.

“Of course we can’t refuse,” Nick laughed. “Now go crawl back into your hole and leave us alone.”

The hawker scowled and shuffled off. Nick rolled the shirt into a ball and tossed it under the table.

Marie took a sip of the cold anise-flavored liquid and unbuttoned her blouse a little in an effort to breathe more freely. The heat in the air continued to rise.

Instructor Response

Thanks for your submission.  You’ve followed the assignment exceptionally well.  Good job.

I’ll address your writing with comments in red.  Now I’d like to give thoughts on how to make the storytelling more vibrant.  And this doesn’t require more words and using more space.  Think first about conflict.  As you know, conflict provides the energy for the story.  In this story, there are opportunities to write in scene conflict between the hawker and Nick.  Threaten.  Degrade.  Misjudge.  You might also look to the conflict between Marie and Nick.  Could they differ more on how they feel about being scammed, about how to handle the situation?  Second, consider setting up a start for the scene where immediately the hawker is introduced, and it is clear he’s out to impose his will to buy a shirt on these tourists.  (You’ve spent too much time on characters at the beginning.  Don’t neglect them though, just get the story started.)  Then after you’ve begun the conflict, you can through dialogue, internalization, and narration keep the scam moving with actions and reactions, changing thoughts, expression of fears and emotions.  You can do this with one character or more than one.  Your purpose should be to give the reader insight as to all the action and emotion and enlightenment that is caused by such an encounter.  Then conclude the scene with active resolution that involves suspense.  Nick refuses to pay.  The hawker thrusts the shirt at Marie who doesn’t reject it.  Nick gets mad at both of them.  The scam guys threatens them.  Maybe he pretends he’s got a knife in his hoody.  Nick calls for a policeman.  The hawker runs.  Nick tackles him.  The hawker gets away.  Nick is angry with Marie for taking the tee shirt.  She now feels sorry for the guy and wants to find him and give him money.

None of this is what you should do.  I go through it to show you how action and conflict provide the momentum for your story.

This is a good story and excellent work.  Keep at it!  And all the best in your writing!

WHC

Suggested reading.

http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/character-in-literary-fictional-story/
http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/momentum/
http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/conflict-in-literary-fiction/

Comments:

Marie emerged from the cathedral into the slushy [Not quite the right word.  Slush means partially melted ice or snow and doesn’t fit here.  It’s hard to imagine slushly in New Orleans.  Be careful with word choice.  I’d suggest looking up words in a Thesaurus as a routine when revising.] April heat of the French Quarter, squinting her eyes against the sudden grey glare. The sticky heat made it difficult to breathe and pasted her blouse to her skin like a sausage casing. She moved heavily towards Pirate’s Alley, where Nick was waiting. New Orleans for their anniversary…what had they been thinking?

“Hail the supplicant!” Nick bellowed at her as she approached the café. His fleshy cheeks were already pink and even from this distance she could make out the bottle on the table and smell the dank sweetness on his breath.  [Learn to keep these descriptive elements to a minimum and have your idea contribute to characterization, or plot progression.  For example, you could say “His wine-tinged breath surprised her, she thought he was a teetotaler.”  OR   “The wine on his breath was cheap and sickening; he was drinking again.  God how he’d changed.”  This would grab an opportunity to develop your characters.  Another way to add purpose to the ideas in your story is make descriptive elements contribute to plot. What if the story involved Nick hitting the accoster with a wine bottle?  You could, at this stage of the story, put something in the story to foreshadow the event.  “He swigged wine directly out of the bottle, gripping the neck as if it were a club.”  Not great but I hope you get the idea.

“Meek and mild the Lenten prayers, ma belle Marie?!” He stood up ceremoniously, pulling a chair from the table. “I love it when you pray,” he whispered in her ear as she sat down. “Your sanctimony is hot as hell.”

“Don’t be disgusting,” she muttered, glancing self-consciously up and down the street. A waitress stood stock-still  [many will see this as cliché that will spoil the reading experience—and it doesn’t add much] in the open doorway of the café. For a moment, Marie wondered if she was made of wax. [Here idea expressed in awkward syntax spoils your writing.  Would anyone look at another person and wonder if they were made of wax.  That’s a writer trying to get a simple idea across and making it illogical, that is what’s at the the core is “She looked like she was made of wax.”  It’s not useful to have the character wonder if she’s made of wax.  Of course she’s not.  But it can be important for her to think of how she looks like a wax figure.  Not an insignificant observation for the author to change.  It’s what makes good writing better.]

The grille of the chair pressed hard against her bottom and back as Nick pushed the seat under the table. “Nick.” she hissed. “Please!”

“Yes of course, my dear, I shall please. Drink?” Nick walked around to the other side of the table, sat heavily and poured. Two melting ice cubes jostled against the walls of the glass as he slid it toward her. “Drink.”

“It’s barely lunchtime for fuck’s sake.” Her words came out more softly than she’d intended, like a plea, and her face flushed.

“Indeed. Far too late to turn back now.” His direction turned toward the waitress whose pose hadn’t moved an inch.  [This isn’t very probable—the not moving an inch—and it’s a detail that detracts from story momentum; that is, it’s a lot of words for a static detail that probably isn’t true to the story world.  Important to look for in revision.]  “Sweetheart! A glass for my sober wife, would you?” The girl glared at them for a moment and disappeared into the shadow of the restaurant.

Nick struck a match noisily and lit a cigarette over his words. “If you think one prayer of yours can absolve us, cherie, you’ve got another penance coming.”

Marie looked vaguely in the direction of the cathedral. Colorfully painted doorways and cascades of wisteria and palm brightened the alley with mocking gaiety.

“I feel sick,” she said.

“Tee shirt for the lovebirds? Every purchase is generously donated to charity.” A hawker was suddenly standing beside their table. His sallow face was cross-hatched with strange red marks and he carried a milk crate half-filled with surprisingly new looking, folded tee shirts.

“Confederacy of dunces.” Nick muttered under his breath as he stood up to face the man.

At that moment [Unnecessary and repetitive.  Don’t let word-fill creep into your writing; that is words, usually cliches, that have no purpose.]  The waitress arrived and slapped a fresh glass of ice onto the table. The salty stench of the hawker hung thick in the humid air.

“Nick, don’t. I’m going to be sick,” Marie said, without moving.

“Just sip and play nice,” Nick hissed at her, pouring Herbsaint onto the ice and flicking his cigarette across the street. Marie watched it roll to the edge of the wrought iron fence beyond which lush trees and flowers were growing.

“Whaddaya got? I’ll pay double.”

“Brand new tee shirts for you and your lovely lady. Just twenty dollars each. All proceeds go directly to charity.”

“Sure they do buddy.”

Nick shoved forty dollars into the milk crate and removed a tee shirt. It was black with ‘I’M GONNA MAKE HIM AN OFFER HE CAN’T REFUSE’ printed on it in white.

“Of course we can’t refuse,” Nick laughed. “Now go crawl back into your hole and leave us alone.”  [This is awkward dialogue for this character in this situation.  The intent, I assume, to get the thoughts and feelings of Nick (and Marie) into the story.  Those feelings are irritation, disgust, anger, dislike, guilt, sympathy, feeling scammed by a crook, wanting the hawker to go away (to be left alone). Others?   It seems unlikely that in the story world the character would say what you have him say.  It might be an opportunity for Nick and Marie to talk.  “I hate the con men.”  “He didn’t seem needy.” “It’s all about cheating.”  “I can’t stand for them to get close to me.”  That sort of thing.  You could also internalize.  He’s trash, Nick thought.  And threatening us!  He should be buried alive.  These are alternative ways to get ideas across without calling attention to authorial struggling with dialogue construction.]

The hawker scowled and shuffled off. Nick rolled the shirt into a ball and tossed it under the table.

Marie took a sip of the cold anise-flavored liquid and unbuttoned her blouse a little in an effort to breathe more freely. The heat in the air continued to rise.

  1. Dear Dr Coles:
    Thank you for the generous and detailed feedback.
    I am going to take another stab, this time introducing the hawker right away.
    VLH

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Pirates Alley Assault

 

            Edgar and Betty Sheehan, slipped out of their French Quarter hotel, just as the rain stopped. They found themselves nearly alone in Pirates Alley as few others had ventured out after the downpour. Only a street vendor pushing a cart, dressed in a wife-beater and dirty jeans occupied the alley. Edgar eyed him nervously, wincing at the man’s scarred chin, noticeably menacing even from a distance. He grabbed Betty’s arm, guiding her away from the brute, but it was too late. 

            “Hey people, I got t-shirts. Only $20.00 and it’s for a good cause. Proceeds go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

            Betty barged forward. She was a large, round woman, compared to her husband, but she appeared inconsequential next to the street vendor. She inspected the merchandise and found it inferior. “We don’t want a two dollar tee shirt for twenty dollars.”

            The brute sneered, “I hate you tourist types, too cheap to help people in need. You’ll drop a couple hundred at Arnaud’s but you won’t spend a lousy twenty to help the starving people that built this town.”

            The brute took a step in close to Betty, towering over her. A large blue vein pulsed across his forehead.

            Edgar stepped forward, reaching for a shirt. His hand trembled as he let it unfold before him. “Nice material. He’s right honey. This shirt will make a great souvenir.”

            The street vendor smirked and backed off. “You’ll need two,” he said. “Looks like a medium and an extra-large.” He rumbled through his pile of shirts, looking for the correct sizes.

             Irritated, Betty grabbed Edgar’s arm as he reached for his wallet. She screeched at the street vendor, “We gave a generous donation at the Cathedral. We’re not chucking our money away on a lousy $2.00 tee-shirt. You should be ashamed of yourself, mister. Jesus don’t want you scamming people.”

            The street vendor grabbed at Betty’s shirt, twisting it, along with the bra underneath. “Who says I’m scammin anybody. Dhese shirts are for the poor. Whose sayin different?”

            Edgar, shaking even worse now, withdrew a wad of bills from his wallet. “No need for violence, mister. Here well take two, make that three shirts.” He held out three twenties.

            The street vendor released Betty and smiled a big, yellow-toothed grin. “That’s more like it.” He took the bills and handed Edgar three shirts, not bothering with sizes. “Smile folks, God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pushed away with his cart.

            They stood stock-still, watching him leave. Betty whimpered. They cowered off in the opposite direction. Edgar ditched the shirts, stashing them into the basket of a bicycle that someone left tethered to an iron fence.

            “We should report him to the police,” Betty hissed, clutching the arm of her husband.

            “Let it go,” he said.

Instructor Response

Russ—

You know what it means to miss New Orleans.  I’ve lived there for a few years and your scene brought back vivid and pleasant memories.  A scene well done, too.  You, as usual, were able to incorporate all the goals of the exercise: setting, characterization, conflict, and a plot with a beginning, middle and end.  Other than a comment or two, I thought I’d wax and wane a little about storytelling and writer opportunities using your story as a launch pad.  You’re one of the few students I would present with these ideas.  (You really have a lot of potential.)

In general, I believe contemporary fiction writers, particularly the literary, have lost reasons to present their stories.  They don’t seem to write with purpose, and innate skill probably for most, that comes from the writer’s skills in characterization with attention to motivation and credible enlightening reactions.

So in revision and as we’re creating, it can be useful to look for opportunities in the characterization to enhance reader understanding of the character through the character’s enlightenment, or at least change in thinking.  And sometimes these opportunities can get across points that stimulate thinking about issues, life, morality etc. that adds to the characterization and the reader enjoyment.

You’ve actually partially done what I’m going to point out when Betty chides Edgar about not reporting the threatening scam artist to the police.  But I’ll go through the process as an emphasis as to what might be valuable in even furthering a morality issue by being sure Edgar knows of his failure.  This will be clear below.

I’ll use your scene (actually acting as a complete story) for the example.  It’s not that it should be changed, but that I’m using it as an example of how this concept works.

Three characters, all well defined and presented: Edgar and Betty Sheehan, and a street vendor.  Is there an opportunity for further characterization?  Of course there is for all.  But what might be the most meaningful.  The vendor is a bully, and any credible change in him would take a lot of space.  Betty is worried about finances and value and that seems to be a reasonable approach to giving money to a scam artist.  She’s also a forceful presence and not subject to easy change or enlightment.  And Edgar wants to get the interaction over.  (I love what you’ve done with the conflicts and the reactions.)  Other than Edgar’s wanting to get the interaction over without provoking the bully who is threatening them, is there something else that might be working?  How about Edgar having a responsibility not to satisfy the bully’s unjust and really immoral demands of being forced to buy inferior tee shirts for inflated prices.  I mean, no one should give in to such a character.  And to resist when the scam artist is large, threatening, and obnoxious would almost be heroic.  So what if, in Edgar’s wimpy failure to standup against evil, he somehow is confronted with his “cowardly” deed.  There might be an opportunity to explore in a paragraph or two of conflict where Betty berates Edgar for giving into evil and not reporting it to the police when he (Edgar) had the opportunity to fight for right in the face of physical and mental threats.  Edgar would probably disagree with any responsibility on pragmatic grounds, but the reader would see a deeper reflection of who and what Edgar is.  And the reader also takes away, subconsciously at least, a moral from the scene.

Of course you could do the same approach for each of the characters with different meanings.  And you might never use the technique if your pacing doesn’t allow it or dealing with issues tangential to the story is inappropriate.  It’s just a way to add significance to characterization and deepen impact and interpretation of actions and emotions.

And the opportunities are not always present and are difficult to find.  But when things work out, it adds that little bit extra to story effect on the reader, on character development, and it elevates the quality of writing and storytelling.

Edgar and Betty Sheehan, slipped out of their French Quarter hotel, just as the rain stopped. They found themselves nearly alone in Pirates Alley as few others had ventured out after the downpour. Only a street vendor pushing a cart, dressed in a wife-beater and dirty jeans occupied the alley. Edgar eyed him nervously, wincing at the man’s scarred chin, noticeably menacing even from a distance. He grabbed Betty’s arm, guiding her away from the brute, but it was too late. 

“Hey people, I got t-shirts. Only $20.00 and it’s for a good cause. Proceeds go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

Betty barged forward. She was a large, round woman, compared to her husband, but she appeared inconsequential next to the street vendor. She inspected the merchandise and found it inferior. “We don’t want a two dollar tee shirt for twenty dollars.”

The brute sneered, “I hate you tourist types, too cheap to help people in need. You’ll drop a couple hundred at Arnaud’s but you won’t spend a lousy twenty to help the starving people that built this town.”

The brute took a step in close to Betty, towering over her. A large blue vein pulsed across his forehead.

Edgar stepped forward, reaching for a shirt. His hand trembled as he let it unfold before him. “Nice material. He’s right honey. This shirt will make a great souvenir.”

The street vendor smirked and backed off. “You’ll need two,” he said. “Looks like a medium and an extra-large.” He rumbled through his pile of shirts, looking for the correct sizes.

 Irritated, Betty grabbed Edgar’s arm as he reached for his wallet. She screeched at the street vendor, “We gave a generous donation at the Cathedral. We’re not chucking our money away on a lousy $2.00 tee-shirt. You should be ashamed of yourself, mister. Jesus don’t want you scamming people.”

The street vendor grabbed at Betty’s shirt, twisting it, along with the bra underneath. “Who says I’m scammin anybody. These shirts are for the poor. Whose sayin different?”

Edgar, shaking even worse now, withdrew a wad of bills from his wallet. “No need for violence, mister. Here well take two, make that three shirts.” He held out three twenties.

The street vendor released Betty and smiled a big, yellow-toothed grin. “That’s more like it.” He took the bills and handed Edgar three shirts, not bothering with sizes. “Smile folks, God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pushed away with his cart.

They stood stock-still, watching him leave. Betty whimpered. They cowered off in the opposite direction. Edgar ditched the shirts, stashing them into the basket of a bicycle that someone left tethered to an iron fence.  Such a great image for me!

“We should report him to the police,” Betty hissed, clutching the arm of her husband.

“Let it go,” he said.

All the best,
Bill Coles

  1. Bill,

    I was in New Orleans for a conference, several years before Katrina. I have to admit to skipping out of a few sessions. My wife loved the food and I loved the jazz. We hope to go back for a purely recreational trip.
    I’ve wanted to thank you for some time for your invaluable assistance. I couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon your site. You’ve articulated so much that I felt intuitively, that when I read your Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers, I found myself saying repeatedly, “That’s right. “ Your free workshop is better than anything I’ve paid for.
    Lately, I’ve been writing a short story between each of your assignments, so I anticipate finishing the last one, number sixteen, in about 30 days. Do you have any suggestions as to what I should do next to improve my avocation?

    Russ Lydzinski

    • Russ–
      Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.
      You’re writing great stories very well. Consider how to get your work read. Traditional commercial press routes are are shrinking. The slicks have really decreased to The New Yorker that is agent based and, in my opinion, rarely publishing stories that are well written. Certainly not enjoyable for me. The literary presses are a black hole. If you got a story accepted by the Kenyon Review for example, the potential readers realistically are less than five hundred. The circulation is less than five thousand, most of those are alumni and never read the journal. Those that do usually skip fiction. Take Tin House. If you published a collection of short stories with Tin House, Rob Spillman told me they are pleased if the sell 3000 copies. What are the chances of a single story being read? Really low. As authors we deserve to be read by those readers who like our work. For me, the Internet has been a blessing. A single story can have more than 200,000 viewers, and about 30% are tracked to verify finishing the story, although the total may be much greater because of limitations of tracking. I see posting stories on the Internet and promoting them as the most useful way to reawaken interest in the short story and reintroduce quality fiction as and enjoyable and legitimate way to present meaningful stories. I suggest you explore the possibilities. It’s not lucrative. But it is, I think, the best way to recognized. I think posting online will become the major source for readers to enjoy quality fiction and I’m working hard to find strategies for authors to be successful using the Internet.
      Always a pleasure hearing from you, and all the best.
      Bill

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