Writing a Scene
I'm going to read you how I tell a turning point scene and this one happens to be the moment of the diagnosis. I'll begin with the doctors words which actually come, we can't confirm this until we perform the endoscopy, he told Jim. But it's pretty clear what's going on here. There's a tumor in your pancreas. How does a person describe the moment her world ends? And I am not gonna use adjectives here. I'm not going to say devastated, crushed, filled with rage. These are not things we can draw a picture off. I'm gonna try to take it apart. Physically I'm gonna see, I'm gonna show you how the world looked through my eyes at that moment. And what was going on not just physically, but in my head. Without adjectives as much as possible. I felt it in my heart. A blow as real as a knife point going in. I thought I might throw up. Ten minutes earlier I had been discussing the need to get my car registered, this being my birthday month, and the question of what color to stain the shingles on ou...
r new house. Now, the room was closing in on me. I looked at Jim's hands. I want you to experience what it was like to be me at that moment. To see through my eyes whatever I was seeing. I looked at Jim's hands, his shoulders, stiffening. His beautiful thick hair. His dear lined face. He still looked like himself but everything was different now. Life as we'd known it gone in the space it took for a man we'd never met to deliver that one sentence. Now this man was putting his hand on Jim's shoulder. Jim's expression remained surprisingly unchanged but the doctor looked as if he might cry. I'm so sorry, he said. My father died of this. Emphasis on the word father with the implication clear. And you will too. There was more, though I could take in part of it. Words coming in and out like bad radio reception. The tumor appeared, and I won't go into all the details. The bad news, no I'll just stop with that one. So, you create a scene and it is not, and if you, and not one sentence of that scene should read as it was if there was a reporter in the room saying what a reporter knows to say. Because the reporter is not in my head. In my body. It must be seen through the point of view of the narrator and the narrator is you. We've talked about the adjective problem. There's another problem that goes hand in hand with that, the adverb problem. There's only one part of speech I feel less fond of and that's adverb. I don't think there's a single adverb in what Allison wrote in that scene between herself and her mother in the bathtub. We don't need to know how her mother picked up the razor or how she addressed her mother when she spoke back, because the dialog says it. And when you do all the rest, when you use all the rest of your parts of speech really well, you do not need adverbs. There's the external story, what happened in the room with that doctors office and there's what happens in my mind. So here's another part of the same diagnosis scene. This was not the first time in my life I'd received bad news. There was the call from my step-father in Canada on Mother's Day of to tell me that my 66 year old mother had an inoperable brain tumor. Late night calls from the hospital in Victoria eight years before that. Your father is in an oxygen tent. He won't live through the night. There was a night in the summer of my 36th year, 1989 again, having dinner with my children's father in a little Vermont inn where I'd booked a room in hopes of saving our marriage. Two of us, 35 and 37 years old. Our children 5, 7, and 11. My husband had set down his fork, looked at me from across the table. John Kenneth Galbraith sat at the table next to us. Why do I remember that part? He delivered the news, I don't want to be married to you any more. And I put that right after the diagnosis scene. Why on earth do I do that? I am trying to think of all the ways besides saying, I felt devastated. To summon devastation in all it's forms that I have ever known. None of which equal this one.