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Writing Tips

From David Hayes:

Writing pictures: how to craft a scene

Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, scenes are the backbone of narrative. They are where you provide action and dialogue to show rather than tell your story. One tip I tell students is to think cinematically. Ask yourself, how would a director handle this scene?

Here is what I would describe as a conventional scene that opens a Toronto Life feature I wrote at the time of The National Post's first anniversary in 1999. It begins with a long shot that takes in the entire scene - a meeting in the main conference room of the newspaper's headquarters. Just a few details help establish the environment. Then the camera closes in on the protagonist in this little drama, then editor-in-chief Kenneth Whyte.

Shortly after 11 A.M. on a Friday in July, fifteen editors are sitting around a table in the conference room of the National Post's Don Mills headquarters. The third-floor room is bright and informal. Beneath plate glass windows sits a bust of Elvis Presley on which someone has put sunglasses. Four cartons of Sleeman's Ale, left over from a recent celebration, are stacked in the corner. On the wall hangs a six-foot colour poster of the classic 1930s newspaper movie The Front Page.

At the head of the table, hunched in his chair, sits Ken Whyte, the 39-year-old editor-in-chief who has been described as the son that Conrad Black, the Post's owner, should have had. The punishing hours Whyte has put in over the past couple of years have taken their toll. He's grown chunkier, his face more fleshy; at this rate, he's going to end up looking just like Black. In his navy blue Timberline jacket, an open-necked shirt, chinos and leather desert boots, you could mistake him for a tenderfoot ready to go on his first hike. Yet there's no mistaking he's the boss. Whenever anything is said, faces turn expectantly toward him. Often he just sits like a sphinx or murmurs noncommittally. There is a sense that his every word is being analyzed for clues. It's an exercise in the Zen of wielding power.

Here's a very different kind of scene. When Reader's Digest asked me to write a personal essay about my decision to resume cycling around Toronto months after a bad accident, I decided to open the essay in medias res, in clipped, impressionistic language that attempted to capture the chaotic action that nonetheless, in memory, is also surprisingly detailed. (By the way, italics were used for this opening scene, to further highlight its dreamlike quality.)

CLICK. The car door swings open. A cyclist is knocked sideways to the ground in front of me. Can't veer around him - traffic, the rumble of a streetcar approaching. Jam on the brakes. Front wheel hits the bicycle lying in my path. Right handlebar clips edge of car door. Back wheel rears up, stopping at 45 degrees. Aluminium alloy rims scream as they twist, steel spokes making a sickening popping sound. Everything frozen in time, like a freeze-frame in a video clip. An oddly serene moment. The asphalt below looks like the dark water of a northern Ontario lake in mid-dive.

As different as they are, in both cases I began by thinking about how the scene might appear visually if a director had been handling it for a feature film or documentary. One of the best ways for writers to learn how to craft scenes is to study the way directors create scenes visually in your favourite movies.

A Toronto-based freelance journalist, author and editor, David Hayes has written three nonfiction books and his articles, essays, columns and reviews have appeared in publications such as Toronto Life, Reader's Digest, Report On Business magazine, Chatelaine, The Globe and Mail and The New York Times Magazine. He has won 12 National Magazine Awards (Gold, Silver and Honourable Mention), and was a Creative Nonfiction juror in 2009.

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