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Classsroom of 2020

June 10, 2020 Carol Brennan King

We started class today by picking up where we left off last week after a painful weekend of grieving. A good man died under the knee of a policeman, and it felt like the world lost its underpinnings. As disconcerted as we had been by all the changes Covid 19 brought to us, now many of us truly felt as though something new in Minnesota had pulled the rug out from under us.

However, as the students observed, the world has been responding in a new and constructive way to George Floyd’s senseless death than they did in the immediacy of the nightmare we saw only a week ago. We listened to and were moved by the work of three of our students in response to what happened in Minnesota, the scene played almost hourly on televisions and computers. Then we moved on to talk about what a scene is and how to write the most useful ones.

What comprises a scene?  Consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience. 

A scene is defined by the presence of more real-time momentum than interior monologue (contemplation) or expository explanation. Real-time momentum means what happens, what is said, and how does the character interact with the setting and characters. You want the reader to feel the tension and rhythms that surround the characters.

The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens the character, drives the story forward, and ends in such a way that he just has to know what happens next.

Then we talked about the value of writing in scenes. This allows you to write in a non-linear fashion. If you develop your characters showing them move through a particular scene, you can weave those scenes together later.

Note that when a character enters or leaves or if the setting changes, you will be starting a new scene.

What’s the best way to start and end a scene?

Start simply with an entrance into the action. Then, by following a character’s goals and desires, you walk your reader through a setting—preferably in a way that

  1. shows the protagonist interacting with the setting it, not just observing it—
  2. employs the character’s sensory perceptions,
  3. introduces his conflict and relationship with the other characters
  4. and builds the character to a high or low point.

Never leave the reader too satisfied at the end of a scene; she must want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

What should a scene accomplish?

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. And thus, scene by scene, you tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music.

We discussed all of these ideas through a scene from a book Carol Brennan King is writing. Consider how the scene begins, with reference to the preceding one. Look at how it ends, a rest for the reader who has been through at least two scenes filled with action. Consider how the senses have been used to bring the scene alive.

Here is the scene read in class:

Chapter 23 Me Stomach Hurts

            “Ma,” Patrick started, knowing his da would not be as quick with his words as his ma, “What was agoing on back there? I heard the lassie ayelling and then ye and da went off after Mr. Coveny and then a lad came by us and everyone was ayelling at him and…”

            Pushing Timothy gently away from where he was hanging into the aisle to make room for herself to climb into the berth, Ma said, “T’was nothing to bother your head. Just a misunderstanding. The lad got his head turned around and went in the wrong direction.”

            “And that’s why ye must mind your ma and your da when we tell ye sommat to do,” interrupted John as he followed Johannah into the recesses of the berth. “That lad almost got himself throwed offen the ship, he did. Wasn’t it for Mr. Coveny stepping in there, the lad might be fish soup, for sure.”

            “But Da, ye and Ma was helping. Twasn’t all Mr. Conveny,” Timothy said, quiet-like so he wouldn’t be heard by the Covenys, still standing in the aisle not far from the Brennans’ berth.

            “Aye, your ma helped the lassie a bit, she did. That lassie couldn’t be much older than our Maggie and she be atraveling without her ma and da. She told me they died back there in Roscommon, she did. Just think a that when your ma or me tells ye sommat to do. How would ye like to be down there where the bairns are all alone, no one to cook there stirrabout or make tea or…?”

            “Da,” twas Bridget pulling on her da now. “Da, me stomach hurts, it does. When ye was gone, I heard the ma next to us saying there’d be no tea the night, what with no fire and now all this noise with the lad. Is it true Da? Are we going to be starving like that lassie’s ma and da, starving to death?”

            “Ah me own sweet lassie,” and he kissed the top of her head, “we don’t know that her ma and da starved to death. They might have got real sick and just died. But we don’t have to be thinking about starving to death, we don’t. Your ma will find something to give us for our tea, even if it won’t be hot tea,” and he laughed a nervous little laugh, that grew into a larger guffaw at his own joke. “Be after asking your ma,” he whispered into the child’s ear, praying all the while Johannah would have sommat put aside.

            Having heard this exchange between their da and wee sister, the boys scooted through the straw scuffling up their sleeping mats to their mother’s side, finding her with both hands deep in the settle. “Ma. We’re a starving, we are. Do ye have sommat to eat ahiding in there?”

            “For sure, I do,” she laughed at her bairns. Thinking of the laugh what found its way through her lips, of a sudden Johannah was very aware it was a thick lump of grief achasing it. She couldna’ help thinking now of that poor Mary with no ma and no da, all alone, and her own Maggie so far away. For sure Maggie had said she’d be acoming one day, but that meant her Maggie would be like the poor Mary, all alone, and now Johannah knew how truly dangerous that would be.

            “Ma, what ye be afinding there?” and the voices of her hungry bairns brought her back to herself.

“I put a pot of stirrabout in here, I did. Just when the ship went atipping over and I went to find ye boys. We’ll see what’s here and what’s been aspilling.” Johannah leaned in two-fisted and pulled out the kettle, still warm. “Now, sit yourselves back, over there by your da in the light,” though the light in the aisle was like a wee moon on a cloudy night. “I’ll be bringing the kettle to ye.”

And so she did. And da said, “For sure, we must be thanking Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the day. We have sommat to eat; there’s bairns down here what don’t. And the ship didna’ tip over, and for sure it coulda’, and we’re on our way to a great green land with no English to be telling us we canna eat what we plant.” And so they ate, and so they slept, and so the ship sailed on under a quick breeze.

PS, Even class notes can have a post script. We also talked about the July series of classes meeting on Zoom the first four Wednesdays in July. Our focus will be on editing our own work, so we also have to keep writing so we have something to edit.

And we talked about this book and the great chapter it has on words, among many other thoughtful and intriguing other chapters.

Happy Reading and Writing

For more on scene building, visit

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