Half-scenes are a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short time. Consider using half-scenes when you want to get to your next big scene, when you need to trim the story’s word count, or when you’re taking a walk down Memory Lane.
In my post explaining the difference between scene and summary, I promised to give info about half-scenes, an essential, third storytelling technique. Half-scenes are the one technique that allows you to both show and tell.
A scene is when the clock ticks in real-time. You’re observing the characters as if you were watching actors on a stage. Scenes are great for dramatizing important moments and conflict. Scenes are what readers remember.
A summary is the Cliff’s Notes version of a scene or several scenes. It’s what you might read in the playbill before a performance. “In Act I, ya dah, ya dah happens.” A summary sweeps through time and gives you the highlights.
That brings us to half-scenes.
Nobody Does Half-Scenes Better Than Updike
John Updike is a writer who excelled in half-scenes.
In “The Full Glass” (The New Yorker, 2008), his narrator is elderly, and his wife is always badgering him about drinking water and taking his pills.
In this elderly man’s story, Updike uses half-scenes to give us glimpses of “charged moments” in the narrator’s life. We know they’re charged because the narrator has bothered to remember them, even into his eighth decade. Time is condensed, the way it always is when we’re looking back.
The first time I slept with the woman I was nearly arrested in Passaic with, I purred. That detail had fled my memory for years, but the other day, as I held somebody else’s cat on my lap, it came back to me. We were on a scratchy sofa, covered in that off-white Haitian cotton that was once fashionable in suburban décor, and when I had pumped her full of myself—my genetic surrogate, wrapped in protein—I lay on top of her, cooling off. “Listen to this,” I said, and laid my cheek against hers, which was still hot, and let her listen to the lightly rattling sound of animal contentment that my throat was producing. I hadn’t known I could do it, but I had felt the sound inside, waiting for me to be happy enough to produce it. She heard it. Her eyes, a few inches from mine, flared in astonishment, and she laughed. I had been a dutiful, religious child, but there and then I realized that the haven of true meaning, where life was rounded beyond the need for any further explanation, had been opened up, and I experienced a peace that has never quite left me, clinging to me in shreds.
What I love about this passage is that we have a brief glimpse of the narrator as a much younger man. He gives us dialogue: “Listen to this.” We listen. We hear that “lightly rattling sound of animal contentment.” We’re “in scene” with that narrator as he takes one quick look down the telescope of time.
Frederick Busch and Half-Scenes
Frederick Busch is one of the writers I’ve spent a lot of time studying. He was a fine short story writer, essayist, and novelist.
In Don’t Tell Anyone, his wonderful story “Debriefing” employs half-scenes to give us a glimpse of a closely observed and charged moment. Note the details about dress and behavior. Listen for the snippet of dialogue that dramatizes a key moment.
As is so often true with the concierge, he seemed to know about us and not at all to care. He probably knew right away, though I’m sure he heard from the waitress who came to my room with our orders. Long service in the lobbies of hotels, especially a lobby as small as that of the Shannon Great Southern, no doubt trains a man to spot the tall, pale, nervous American leaning over, as if trying to enfold, the small, athletic, nervously alert woman who arrives with the passengers of his plane but who pretends loudly, as he does, that they have, that moment, unexpectedly met. Since they are Americans, they travel in children’s clothes—each is wearing soft white sneakers, floppy jeans, shirt hanging out at the waist—and each is certain that the staff of what looks like a long, low, stucco motel will have lost their reservations and canceled their rooms. On the stairs to the second floor, as I hefted her bag as well a my own—“Here,” I bellowed, “let me give you a hand, Dr. Paulus!”—I hissed, as we reached the doors, “I’m doing a little job for the Department of State.”
The paragraph following this half-scene continues with a summary of the man-and-woman’s relationship, and we learn that he’s trying to impress her because she wants to break it off.
None of the action is dramatized, meaning “happening in real-time.” The only dialogue we hear is that moment of bellowed greeting.
When To Use Half-Scenes
How do you figure out what should be in scene, summary, and half-scene? Well, there aren’t any exact rules for this, nor are there for most of what we attempt in fiction. I can only tell you what I do.
If I’ve gotten my scenes into some sort of plot-outline, with one action leading to the next, I can decide which scenes must be full scenes and which half-scenes. (“The King died and then the Queen died” is not a plot.
This is a plot. “The King died, and then his power-hungry brother married the Queen, causing Prince Hamlet to be torn between love for his mother and a desire to avenge his father’s death.”)
In a typical chapter or short story, I’ll have two or three short scenes (meaning ten or twelve lines of dialogue), followed by the climactic, fully dramatized, long scene at the end. The long scene might consist of two or three pages of dialogue, with characters breaking off an argument and then picking it up again.
When I’ve marked out my scenes and done a scene outline, I’ll boil down all other material to summary. Why? Because most magazines want 5,000-word stories, not stories coming in at 7,500 words. I write long, and I’ve often had to cut a 7,500-word story to a length that’s palatable to a literary magazine’s editor.
Most novels fall in the 90,000 to 110,000 word-count range. Knowing how to compress full scenes to half-scenes could help you if an editor wants you to trim your 120,000-word novel. Be aware of the editors’ expectations, and you’ll have an easier time placing your fiction.
How Exactly Does This Strategy Work?
If I’m trying to meet some word-count target, I’ll see if any of my short scenes could be boiled down to half-scenes.
I use a yellow highlighter to circle dialogue that must stay in. Dialogue that reveals character is a keeper, but if I’m whacking and slashing, I may not keep anything but the odd, stray line. That, along with vivid description, will constitute a half-scene.
Half-Scenes and Flashbacks
John Updike’s and Frederick Busch’s stories both have narrators who are thinking about the past. I’ve seen many manuscripts where writers want to make the reader understand the importance of an event in the past. To shine a spotlight on that event, the author dramatizes it in a full scene. This is a flashback.
A flashback jerks us out of the ongoing action of the story. It’s like a record needle being picked up from a spinning LP. (Okay, this is an old-school example, but I trust you’ll get what I mean.) You, the listener, are enjoying Track 12, and suddenly, you’re on Track 1.
Going into a dramatized flashback forces the reader to meet your character in a different time and place. The reader must decide if s/he likes the character or not.
Then, the reader must get acclimated to the time change and setting. Later, the reader must make another transition and try to remember where the ongoing action left off.
In most cases, a dramatized flashback will cause the reader to lose track of the ongoing action. For your story to have constantly rising tension, you can’t let that happen.
However, if you understand how to use half-scenes, you can take those walks down Memory Lane and not sacrifice continuity.
Your Turn Now!
You can get nearly as much emotional clout from a half-scene as you can from a short scene. Just provide vivid sensory details, one or two lines of sharp dialogue, and the protagonist’s thoughts (inner monologue). That helps readers place moments that bubble up from the past in context. It deepens our connection to your character, but doesn’t slow down the story.
A Possible Writing Exercise
Would you be willing to take one of your fully dramatized scenes and try an experiment? Write a summarized version of the scene, but don’t include a lot of visual or olfactory detail. (Smells are important, and we so often forget to include them.) Make your summary a single paragraph, and don’t worry about running long. Compared to a full scene, a summary passage will take up very little space on the printed page.
Now, add in some visual details so your reader sees your characters clearly. Add a smell or two. Add a thought at the beginning of the passage and one at the end. What’s the character’s take on this event? Why is it coming up now? And, finally, add a line or two of dialogue.
If you don’t have a story of your own, try doing this with Hamlet. Tell the audience what happens in the scene. Then, add in elements until you’ve written a vivid half-scene.
The point is that there are many ways to tell the same story. Exercises like this can help you limber up. Soon you’ll be doing handstands!
I’d love to know how it works out.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.