As you set out to live a great story in 2010, remember to create memorable scenes.
In movies and in novels alike, you’ll notice writers tend to place characters in visually (or imaginatively) stunning scenes. When we were working on the screenplay for Blue Like Jazz, I’d often recommend our characters talk about something over coffee or in a dorm room, and Steve and Ben (the other two principle writers) would shake their heads to say no. Scenes in coffee shops are boring. Movies should be memorable, visual, exciting and different. Now I see it in movies all the time. Writers place characters on top of buildings, in beautiful parks, on busses that bend like an accordions in the middle and so on. Anything to make the scene more memorable, and thus the dialogue more meaningful.
The same principle is true in life. Many of the scenes in your life you remember best were the times you jumped off bridges or smoked a pipe on the roof. Once when some friends and I were embarking on a long paddle in British Columbia, some friends at the camp we were leaving put on giant animal costumes (think mascott size) and jumped off the top deck of a huge boat in order to say goodbye. That was years ago, but I will never forget the waving bear and raccoon suddenly stepping off the railing and falling into the frigid water. That was certainly a memorable scene.
Even Steve, Ben and I created a memorable scene. We were in Portland for a writing session and it was snowing heavily. We took a break and tied a rope to the back of my truck, got in kayaks and pulled each other around the streets of my neighborhood (Be careful with this one. Somebody was killed that same day being pulled in a sled behind a truck).
Sometimes a writer will sit for an hour or so, just thinking of a creative setting in which to place a conversation. It’s important work, that sitting and thinking, because the scene will engage the viewer or reader much better. And it’s important work in life, too. Here are some tips on creating memorable scenes:
1. Say yes to awkwardness: Is your buddy a mortician? Ask him if you can take him to lunch in exchange for a tour of his funeral home. I did this once. Talk about a memorable scene. I’ll spare you the details, but it was a sobering and quirky and beautiful experience.
2. Take the conversation to a different place: Are your buddy’s coming over for your weekly prayer meeting? Are you normally bored during your weekly prayer meeting? Is there a water-tower near by? You figure out the rest. I once led a small group and one week canceled the whole thing just to hike up Mt. Tabor to watch sunset. I think we got more out of that meeting than we would have sitting around staring at our navels and sharing our uneducated opinions about Romans.
I always liked that scene in The Dead Poets Society where Professor Keating takes the class outside, puts a record on a turntable and has them kick red balls into a field while shouting lines of poetry from slips of paper. Professor Keating new the power of a memorable scene.
3. Don’t be embarrassed: I have a little red wagon at my place that I use to bring stuff up from the garage. A great memory I have is of pulling an old girlfriend down to the market and through the isles to get groceries. I’m not saying we should be dopes and cause scenes, but caring too much about what people think is a sure way to live a boring story. (It also helps to live in Portland, where it’s not uncommon to see grown adults inside the baskets of shopping carts dressed as cats playing guitars while being pushed by gnomes through the organic produce section.)
4. Don’t be afraid to get wet, cold, dirty or hot: Maybe my favorite memory from 2009 was up at Chatterbox Falls in British Columbia. Some friends and I had gone up to the falls and were standing only ten or so feet away, getting soaked by it’s cold spray. My friend Richard Goff then led us back behind the falls, where the air was so cold and the wind was so strong it was hard to breathe. I reached my hand into the waterfall and the force of it pushed my hand down. And then my friend Dusty Brown literally stepped his entire body into the massive fall and stumbled straight through. Of course the rest of us followed, once we were sure he had survived! So whether it’s getting wet, getting cold, getting hot or just getting dirty, you can always wash your clothes and take a shower later. Go for it!
The idea is to create scenes this year you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and to invite others into the thrill of being alive. I often think of it as worship in the sense that God created this beautiful expanse as an exposition within which to live remarkable stories, and it’s our job to match the story to the expanse, to make use of it, to fill it with memorable scenes.