Why There Are Four E’s In Scene
Note: Some people are going to hate the E-apostrophe-S. I use it a lot in this post, so here’s your chance to get out.
What’s a scene? Is it the room where your action takes place? Technically, yes, but let’s use “setting” for that. And let’s thus define scene as the dramatization of an encounter. It’s much more than that, of course, but let’s start there. Dramatization implies that we’re going to see something, right? Versus the narration of an encounter.
You can buy 10 books on craft for fiction writers, and you might find scene mentioned this way in maybe two of them. Buy 10 books on craft for screenwriters or playwrights, and you’ll find scene properly addressed in 10 of 10. Why is this? Are fiction people just lazy? Or is this yet more handiwork of the Illuminati?
Here’s my theory: Of course, fiction people aren’t lazy, and of course it’s the Illuminati. They control everything. However, it’s not that scene isn’t discussed in fiction craft books, it’s that it’s discussed obliquely, or in its dissected state. Most books will talk about action and dialogue and point of view as though these things aren’t happening concurrently. And I can see why this approach is taken, but I almost never see the discussion of what happens when you put ‘em all together. You know, like they’ll need to be in a book or story. Kind of a lot.
Script people, though, live and die by the scene. Why? Because it’s what the audience will see. A script, as William S. Burroughs said, is a set of instructions. If there’s a lot of description in a script, it’s there for the benefit of the director, the actors, the set decorators, and so on. The audience won’t ever see those words of description. All they’ll see are the scenes.
The best way I’ve found to think about scene is via something I call The Four E’s. Is it cheesy and reductive? Sure. Is it also memorable? So far! Let’s stick with it, then. Here we go, in order: Encounter, Event, Escalation, Effect. Those are The Four E’s. Now in depth:
1. Encounter – Every scene is the story of an encounter. It is, as I said up there, encounter dramatized. If your narrator wants to think about the time he met the shaman but merely describes the encounter, that is not scene, it is narration. Hey, Matt, does an encounter need to take place between more than one person? No! An encounter is between at least one character and one other thing. That thing could be another person, could be a bunch of people, could be a vending machine.
2. Event – Oh, but merely having an encounter is not enough. Something needs to happen. Event needs to happen! What’s the thing that happens? Doesn’t need to be a big goddamn fistfight all the time. It can be a series of missed advances, or two people distinctly not talking in a car, or a guy trying to put money in a vending machine.
3. Escalation – And yet! It’s still not enough that something happens. Stakes need to be raised in some way. This could be any number of things: a person finds out damning information; a gun is drawn; a door is opened; the other person refuses to acknowledge that something is wrong; the birds outside seem louder and louder.
4. Effect – The final, most important E! What effect did the encounter & escalating events have? Make no mistake: Something has changed.
It’s important to know that effect can be apparent to one or more characters, but that it must be apparent to the reader. Now: Does this mean everything makes total sense to the reader, that you’re constantly explaining everything and its importance? No, and if you’re asking that you haven’t read the rest of my blog. If the reader’s not doing some work, the writer’s not doing her job. What I mean by effect is this: Can the reader tell something has changed/shifted/gained new importance/come to light, etc.? Even if it’s not yet clear what or how this might affect the rest of the story?
And again, effect can happen to the characters, but doesn’t have to. William Trevor, whom everyone should read, can go an entire story without his characters realizing what’s just happened or why. And yet, by the end of a Trevor story, you, the reader, are holding your face in your hands, horrified, because you know what’s just happened, and you now know why.
You need dialogue for a scene, right? Not true. After all, you can have an encounter between a guy and a big rock, as long as that encounter becomes some sort of event (he tries to climb the boulder? He takes a crazy run at it?) that escalates (he struggles to scale the boulder, nearly falling in the process; he breaks his shoulder on it but keeps running into it) and produces some effect. (He’s over the rock and is now on to the next part of his journey; or he lies broken and bloody on the desert floor, but he smiles and we realize his boulder-attack was definitely part of some plan, though we may not yet understand the Why of it.)
Let’s look at the famous “fuck” scene from The Wire. Quick setup: The two cops, Bunk and McNulty, are trying to get approval from their police higher-ups to run a wire tap on a narcotics operation called the Barksdale Gang. So far, the higher-ups aren’t having it. However, if they can pin a murder on the Barksdales, it might be a different story. In this scene, Bunk and McNulty are visiting the scene of an unsolved murder. The last cops to go through the scene were, shall we say, less than thorough. No bullet was found, and with no bullet there’s no tracing anything back to anyone. Time’s running out to get that wire tap, so we come into the scene with a sense of urgency.
Note: it’s called the “fuck” scene for a reason. Viewer discretion is advised. Also, there are lady boobies on a lady corpse.
So: What are the four E’s of that scene?
- Encounter – Not between the two cops, nor the two cops and the landlord, but between the two cops and the crime scene.
- Event – the crime scene investigation.
- Escalation – Bunk realizes the broken glass was on the inside of the window. Thus, the shooter had to have been standing outside, which is not how everyone had been reading the evidence. From this point, you can see the editing change, with quicker cuts and shorter shots, as Bunk and McNulty race to put their new information together and find the bullet they need.
- Effect – Twofold. One, they find the bullet, which is a tactile, physical effect; a goal was reached. Two, though, they now have the key that will unlock the higher-ups and get them what they need. The effect here is felt by both character(s) and audience.
Now: It’s important to realize that scenes, like sentences, have to vary in size and importance, or whatever overall effect you hope to have will be lost. There’s a Russian movie called Night Watch, about vampires and vampire hunters, in which EVERY. SCENE. IS. BOMBASTIC. AND. CRAZY. AND. THE. EFFECT. IS. NUMBING. Seriously, in Night Watch, the act of starting a truck is treated with the same weight as waging a battle.
Let’s look at Edward P. Jones’ story “The First Day,” a very short story which is not part of the Lord of the Rings saga. (Read “The First Day” here.) There are small scenes early on, but the key scene runs from #8 to #21 in the text, between when they get to Walker-Jones School and when they hand in the registration forms.
You can apply the Four E’s to that scene: A 5-year-old girl and her mother encounter the signup ladies; the event is her attempting to register for kindergarten; escalation occurs when the girl begins to notice differences between herself and the other children (there’s a fancy-ish girl who looks at our narrator’s mother as though she were diseased) as well as between her mother and other grownups (there’s a woman with money in her hair, and the narrator’s mother reveals herself to be illiterate); the effect is that the girl realizes for the first time that there’s something different about her mother. Something has changed. (Also, on a pure story level, the woman with money in her hair is going to be this girl’s first teacher. Not great!)
Here’s a little secret: the Four E’s? They also apply to chapters, stories, novels. If you look at a chapter and there aren’t Encounter, Event, Escalation, and Effect in there — not only in its scenes but in its totality — then question it.
The Lord of the Rings saga is about the encounter between the “good” races of Middle Earth and the evil minions of the dark lord Sauron; there are a series of events, battles both exterior and interior, as the two sides wrestle for control; things escalate as characters experience victories and setbacks, fight off their personal demons, form alliances and break promises, etc.; the effect, achieved when Frodo destroys the ring and Aragorn and Gandalf defeat the evil army at Mordor, is that peace and safety return to Middle Earth. (And also that Sam finally gets to live a life of his own.)
Or, again, “The First Day.” The encounter is between this mother-daughter team and the local school system. The event is, the girl is trying to start school for the first time in her life. Things escalate when first they’re at the wrong school, then they have to sign a set of forms at the right school, and it’s revealed to the girl (and us) that her mother is illiterate. The effect, after the mother has left her little girl at school (I touch her lips and press them together. It is an old, old game between us. She puts my hand down at my side, which is not part of the game.) is felt mainly by the reader: we understand this is not only her first day of school, but her first day seeing How Things Are (i.e., the world apart from her mother), her first day being a person in the world. It’s a measly five-page story, and stakes couldn’t be higher.
The four E’s, then, are simply good storytelling. Remember that in a scene, even if it’s two pages long, you are telling a story. Otherwise, why is the scene there?
When does a scene end, by the way? Generally when the encounter in question is over. In scripts, it’s when the characters leave their location, but in fiction and creative nonfiction, it’s when the singular encounter is finished. Like this one, right now!
Next: Point of View.