(26 of 40) Writing a Scene: II

In almost every writing class I teach I eventually bring in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and show the Garbage Chute scene. I know, it's a bit nerdy of me.

It's really two or three scenes interwoven -- Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Han Solo fighting off the stormtroopers in the cell bay; C3PO and R2D2 in the control room; and Luke and company in the trash compactor.

All scenes, like stories, have a beginning, middle, and end, but this scene really has a beginning, middle, and end, and it dramatizes other features of much longer stories. The characters have both external and internal desires. They undergo an abbreviated hero's journey a la Joseph Campbell (remember Luke disappearing under the water). There's a love triangle. Characters become more developed in this scene, both individually and in relationship. And the stakes, for all the characters, are high -- life and death.

High stakes make storytelling easy, and maybe this is why my Creative Nonfiction students write about childbirth, car crashes, drunken escapades in the middle of the night, and the death of grandparents. But what about the story you want to write about picking strawberries when you were ten, or taking your horse to the fair, or riding your bicycle all the way to the grocery store after you turned twelve? In order to write a big scene, is it necessary to have the walls collapse?

What's required to make a quiet story feel "big" is to step back and rethink it creatively, a little like taking a director's look at your own life. Who were the main characters? Were you the protagonist? Who was the antagonist? What did you want? What stood in your way? Who were you at the beginning of this quiet story, and who were you at its end? What did you learn? If not life itself, if not the galaxy, what was at stake?

Trust me, something was at stake. If you are awake, if you pay attention, then there's something to learn. As they write their stories, my students begin to see that, looked at in the right way, they are always learning, and the stakes are always high.