Crafting a scene has always challenged me as a writer. Just how much detail is needed to set the scene? How much do you interrupt the flow of dialogue to keep the reader grounded in the story without the whole thing coming off as a talking heads show? On the flip-side, how much is too much before you loose your reader’s attention? Even with the praise I offered regarding Flaubert’s achievement with Madame Bovary, there were times when my eyes glazed over. While I can appreciate all the work that went into setting up a scene, I personally don’t care about all the unnecessary details of who is wearing what and how a cathedral was constructed. If it moves the story forward, I have some grace; if it only draws attention to the writer, though, I can’t stand it. After all, it was Hitchcock who said that drama is “… life with all the boring parts left out.”
Part of what drives the answer for me is whether or not I become bored as a reader while reviewing my own story. Also, if I feel like there’s not enough, that the scene feels empty, then I go back and try asking more questions. What’s the character feeling? What physical reactions flow naturally from that feeling? What ambient sounds would be part of this scene that might distract the character’s focus or cause a memory flash? What about smells? In the occasions, then, when I feel I haven’t done enough, I try to go back and improve the story; however, I admit that writers are not always the best gauges of their own work--they are too close--and sometimes create more problems than they fix through their revisions.
Writing is an intellectually exhausting, and sometimes a painstaking, process that is intentional in its design--from which word is chosen down to even the placement of a punctuation mark. As they craft their stories, writers are constantly asking themselves a myriad of questions, all of which serve the story. What's the tone? Is there enough tension? Does that comma serve the flow of the sentence? In the process, though, like a self-employed salesman the writer can’t ignore the reader. A writer can't write this lofty piece if it comes off like a reading of a House Bill. It is the reader, after all, who has spent money and time, engaged in a mutual contract with the writer, to be entertained, enlightened, shocked or comforted. To lose one reader is to lose several. Readers talk.
So why am I writing today about crafting a scene? Because I’m currently struggling with one I’ve spent the last two days working over, and I am beginning to doubt what I’ve accomplished--if anything at all. So, here is an excerpt of the scene, for whatever it’s worth. To set the stage, though, let me add that this is a Western, and my lead (Arturo) has just returned home to find four horses tied to the hitching post outside. In this scene, Iverson is a man who had approached Arturo at a cantina the previous day, asking questions about another man.
Let me know what you think regarding the issue at hand. Too much? Not enough?
The man in the flat-brimmed hat, the one who called himself Iverson, sat at the kitchen table, his legs crossed and boots propped up on another chair. A bottle of mescal and a glass kept him company.
“Ah, señor, you’re finally home.” A cunning smile with straight white teeth greeted Arturo as he stepped through the door. “We have been waiting a long time for your return.”
Arturo looked around. Another man with a grizzled beard stood by the bedroom doorway, a Henry rifle cradled in the bend of his left arm. Dirt and grime painted the crow’s feet of his bloodshot eyes. A black, dusty hat sat low on his head. A solitary bandolier crossed over his chest, and a belt with two pistols--Colts by the looks of them--hung to one side on his hips.
Arturo looked the second man over and received a cold, hard stare in response. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Iverson.
“Where’s my wife?”
“We have not harmed her,” Iverson said. “Yet.”
“What do you want?”
Iverson poured some mescal into the glass. “It seems that we have had a slight misunderstanding.”
“There was no misunderstanding. You are looking for a man, and I cannot help you.”
Iverson shook his head. “Oh, but you can. You see if there is one thing I have, it is an acute sense of when I’ve been lied to. And you, señor, have not been telling me the whole truth.”
“You asked if I know where to find Ruben Leon. I do not. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“But, you know how to find him.”
Arturo narrowed his eyes. “And what makes you think that I can do that?”
A slow smile. “Because you are the notorious Isacony.” When Arturo didn’t say anything, Iverson added, “I am right about that, am I not?”
A gust of wind blew through the window as Arturo fought to suppress the amazement of a total stranger using a name he’d tried hard to bury under a mountain of time. Finally, thinking of something to say, he offered, “That is a name I do not recognize.”
Another chuckle. Then, talking over his shoulder to the man by the bedroom door, Iverson said, “Jimmy, do you believe this? The man actually stands here and claims he doesn’t know himself.”
“Isacony,” the second man repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s Comanche for Returning Wolf,” Iverson said.
“Comanche, huh?” Jimmy looked Arturo over. “So, you’re a half-breed.”
Arturo felt the burn of bitterness flash across his face, but remained silent.