|Creating Scenes in Fiction: An Example Using an Historic Photo|
Wednesday, February 24th, 2016
One of the many great paradoxes in writing fiction well is that dramatized in scene fiction can evoke reader involvement and emotions better than narrative telling. The photo of a lynching of two blacks in the south in the 1930's is appalling. For a fiction writer, such an image hides strong human emotions; how does a writer capture feelings and create a significant reader reaction through prose fiction?
A fiction writer has the opportunity in such a scene to create in a reader a multidimensional sense of what might have been the living thoughts and emotions at the moment. Then, by objective fiction in scene fiction void of abstractions, explain by showing the attitudes and feelings of the moment. It's translating the feelings that we think occurred almost eighty years ago.
An inexperienced writer might start a description of the scene like this: The humid air seemed balmy, and heavy with weight of the moment. The crowd stared as the two corpses swayed slightly, twisting this way and that. Blood came from the mouth of one. The other head had bulging eyes, as if diseased and now bloated. The stench of excrement drifted over the people, a horrible reminder of death's lack of tact.
This is from the narrator's perspective. In the description are a number of opinions and judgments: balmy, stench. And there is a cliché–weight of the moment–that might be too abstract to be effective. The horror, the injustice, the cruelty is beginning to show through. But the people in the picture are happy, festive, apathetic. Their inexplicable response to the murders is what makes this photo so horrific. And there's a lot going on. The brutal killings have occurred by summary justice, but the atmosphere is festive, there is an almost in-your-face joy at "right" being done, and there is the apathy for lives lost and a blatant lack of respect. The woman looks surprised at the camera flash but there is no fear, no sorrow, no horror. And she's in a Sunday-go-meeting dress. She's holding her husband's hand but it doesn't seem for moral support, more to keep from getting separated maybe. One wonders if the photographer, with artistic acumen, felt the need to capture these contradictory feelings–the dichotomy of the crowd's emotional response contrasting to what the reality of the scene embodied–outrage at the injustices racial hatred would invoke in another crowd at a different time. Or maybe even more revealing, the photo was accidental, which make the journalistic reporting insensitive.
Here's a try with narrator writing in point of view of the woman character in the dark polka-dot dress on the left holding the hand of the man. The flash of the camera surprised her. The lens was pointed at her and the crowd, not at the Negroes twisting at the end of their ropes and suspended from the limb of Reverend Callahan's giant oak, the playground for children for decades. Dexter's dry scratchy hand held hers loosely, he was curious and smiling at the camera with all of them. A man near them swigged boubon from a silver flask. She refused when offered a sip, upset he didn't respect her as a lady, but Dexter took a big swallow. The negroes weren't local she'd heard, didn't know their ways. Smart talking they were too, rude to Maud Richards, as if she weren't white. She thought the photographer might take another picture and she dropped Dexter's hand to find her lipstick in the pocket of her dress. It was a shade of red she'd just bought from the catalogue because Ethel had started wearing her shade, (and not to Ethel's advantage she might point out). Some Negroes over near the hitching posts a might far from them but still close enough that that Negro-moan-singing came to them: "Just a closer walk with thee." Happy she was to see the sheriff and his deputy shut them up and send them away. Serve 'em right. Yes, sir. The will of God prevails.
The idea in this segment is try to paint the horror of the crowd festive attitude, and apathy to the dead as well as the indifference of the law, as opposed to simply describing the look of the corpses and the expected outrage the narrator feels at a double murder for incomprehensible, illegitimate reasons. The key, I think, is to find then imagine the bizarre emotions and gaiety of the crowd in the presence of two lynched humans. The reaction seems, after all, an insult to the crime itself–perfect for the fiction writer to create meaningful literature. It helps when creating a scene to look for dichotomy, a conflict, an incongruity, to bring the reader into the scene with not only more intensity, but augmented emotional involvement.
If you're writer, you can learn to make choices that will make your stories engaging and meaningful to readers. Fiction is a rewarding accomplishment for a writer, well worth the study and practice. A start might be this new manual: Creating Literary Stories: A Guide for Fiction Writers. An inexpensive gift available in digital and print formats for yourself, a loved one, a writer yearning to write fiction, or any one you care about.