Saturday, November 20, 2010

A tale of two scenes

My 20-year-old son, Zach, is not a person who reads a lot for pleasure. He's very intelligent, but in a spacial way. He wants to be a film editor. Or an engineer. Something spacial. Visual.

But he asked to read the opening of my novel-in-progress, Empty Spaces, the other night. The book, you might remember, opens with a harrowing school shooting -- the inciting incident that fuels the entire novel.

I was rather proud of my opening scene, which I have posted here on this blog previously.

So he read it and when he was done, he turned to me and said: "Hmmm. I think you could do it better."

Say what?

My initial reaction was the usual. What do you know? You're just a kid, and you don't even read much. Give me a break. But I didn't say it. Instead, I was curious. I mean, I've learned over the years that sometimes, something really good comes from some rather surprising places.

So I listened. And listened. He talked about how I was "telling it, not showing it." Remember, this is a kid who knows next to nothing about writing fiction. He asked me my favorite scene ever in a movie.

I thought for a while and said, "The scene in the Godfather where Michael gets the gun from behind the old-fashioned toilet stall and goes out and shoots the gangster and a police captain."

"Right," he said. "That's my favorite, too. Think about how the filmmaker did that, how he used the tension and sounds and camera angles to jack up the tension without saying a word."

So I thought about it. And we talked about it. For more than an hour. And when I went to bed that night, I promised him I would re-work the opening scene the next morning, using his suggestions.

I didn't have much hope that it would be better. After all, I'm the writer here, the expert.

But I got up, poured me a cup of Starbucks (it was an off day from the gym) and went to work. I opened up a new Word file and, without reading the original, re-imagined the scene from scratch. I wanted to show it as though we were looking at it, feeling it, hearing it, smelling it. I wanted the tension to come organically, and not just through my words.

What follows is the original opening scene, followed by the re-imagined one. You be the judge. And remember that the scene shows an anonymous kid preparing to shoot up his junior college. The scene really sets up the entire novel.

Original scene:

The boy dropped his backpack onto the floor just outside the stall closest to the window and plucked the Heckler-Koch G36 mini assault rifle from its hiding place between his American history book and a pair of balled-up sweatpants. The gun was wrapped in a pair of socks—the good black ones his mother had bought him last Christmas.

He’d done his homework. The weapon was assembled in less than ten seconds, since the G36 simply snaps together using its handy little cross-pins—typically effective German engineering, his father would’ve said. The boy had bought it three days earlier from some jive-talking dope dealer whose hands shook so much he could barely pocket the cash. It had been no problem coming up with the money. He’d simply withdrawn it from his savings account at the First Bank of Exeter—money he’d earned over the summer working in his father’s law office. He’d been little more than a glorified delivery boy, of course, but it had made the Old Man happy to have his kid hanging around. And he paid well.

Once the weapon was together, he rummaged in the backpack until he found the three ammo clips, pulled them out and slammed one home. He no longer felt the need to hurry. If someone came in now, he’d just start here. He stood, shouldered the backpack, tucked the remaining clips into the waistband of his jeans and wiped his sweaty hair from his eyes. He could feel his heart pounding in his temples. He felt more alive than he had ever felt in his life.

He looked at himself briefly in the big mirror. A wild-eyed stranger stared back at him. Averting his eyes, he walked out of the bathroom and into the crowded, noisy hallway.

Here's the new scene:

He shrugged out of the black canvas backpack and let it drop. It smacked the floor, sending up a fine spray of gritty dust. He bent down and grimaced. An unmistakable odor seeped in under the closed stall door—sweet urinal cakes, stale piss, icy disinfectant. The candy scent of cheap liquid hand soap.

Jesus. Was there a place on earth more fucking disgusting than a school bathroom?

He tore at the backpack’s zipper, which hesitated only a second before giving way. Zzzzip. Hands plunged inside, rummaged about. His brain took note of what he felt. A notebook. A flannel shirt, rolled into a ball. An iPod. Cell phone. Earbuds. A sneaker. His father’s ice pick. Just in case. Dad wouldn’t need it.

His hand grasped something cold—solid. He grunted, pulled it out.

An American History textbook. He pegged it at the door. Blam.

Growing frantic, he dug deeper, tossing the contents aside.

Yes. He grasped cold metal with trembling hands. The receiver housing of the Heckler-Koch G36 mini assault rifle, as black as midnight. It paid to know the right people. He knew the right people.

He placed the housing on the toilet’s porcelain tank top and went back to work. Three more pieces remained hidden within the bag: The return mechanism, the bolt carrier group, and the trigger group. He’d disassembled the still-warm weapon before leaving home. The last thing he needed was a fucking rifle barrel poking out of his pack. That would draw some looks, some questions.

Not good. Not yet.

His fingers closed on the trigger group when the bathroom door burst open. Laughter echoed off the cold tile walls. He froze—greasy hair in his eyes, slender hands still in the bag—and peered out through a sliver of daylight between the stall door and the cubicle wall. Two kids stood side-by-side at the row of urinals on the facing wall, pissing and chattering.


He reached down in slow motion, his fingers tightening on the ice pick’s handle. He’d kill them if necessary. Silently, so as to not raise an early alarm.

They finished, zipped, and even washed their hands. The door closed with a bang. The bathroom fell silent. He went back to work, quicker now. Class would be starting any second. He found the pieces, snapped them together using the handy cross-pins. Typically effective German engineering, his father would have said.

He plucked three ammo clips from the bag and slammed one home. He jammed the other two into the waistband of his jeans. Finished, he hefted the rifle, opened the stall door and stepped out. He relaxed. If anyone came in now, he’d just start here. No problems.

He turned, dragged the backpack out of the stall with the toe of his sneaker and kicked it as hard as he could. It slid across the tile floor until it slammed into the far wall, next to the clanking steam radiator under the big frosted windows. It would sit there unnoticed for twenty-nine minutes, until a handsome young police officer found it with a victorious cry.

On his way out, he glanced into the grimy mirror above the sinks. A scrawny, dark-haired kid carrying a nasty black assault rifle looked back. He grinned, gave himself the thumbs up. He felt more alive at that moment than at any time in his eighteen years.

It was straight-up 8 o’clock on a Monday morning.

Well? I don't know about you, but I think the kid was right.


  1. It sounds like your son plots scenes much the same way I do.

    If you decide the "movie" way of plotting (which is what tend to use) works for you, you might try downloading something like Celtx (free screenwriting software). It takes some getting used to, but the format shift might work. You can use the "screen" version as notes or a rough draft, and then transform it into prose.

    (FWIW, I'd say you're a natural "movie-style" writer, anyway. The excerpt of TDYK you posted on Nathan's forums, reads very much like an extended montage scene to open a film, and I'd bet that's what's tripping people up. It works brilliantly as a visual, but it's a tougher sell on paper.)

  2. This is where I think differences of opinion can drive you crazy, and you ultimately have to go with what feels right for you!!! But since you asked for our opinions . . .I think both are fine scenes, but if I'm reading a book, personally, I'd want the first scene.

    The first feels somewhat cold & precise, which is what I would expect if I were reading (or watching) the opening act in a crime scene drama, like Criminal Minds or NCIS. It's a mostly omnipotent scene, where we can remain completely detached from the bad guy who's about to start shooting up his school. I'm comfortable with that, because it tells me I'm not going to be with this guy for long. It's quick and sets up what's going on without going into too much detail.

    I'm far less comfortable in the second scene, because we're being placed more in this kid's head and I don't know, as a reader, that I want to be there. The way the second scene is written, I'm afraid the whole story may be told from this character's perspective and that makes me question if I want to keep reading to the shooting part.

    That being said, thrillers aren't my area of expertise. I'd be able to give you much more studied examples if this were a ghost story and/or horror.

  3. I definitely think your son was right. If the killer is the main character we need to be inside his head, feel what he's feeling, and see what he sees. Personally, I liked the second version better.

  4. One more opinion.

    The first scene could have been better, yes.

    The second scene's okay but it's longer than necessary and has some padding you don't need. I think you'd do better blending some of the second -- smells, POV -- into the first, keeping it short and keeping our attention.

    And of course, this is only my opinion.