In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing That Scene examines the fundamentals of what it takes to make a scene powerful and memorable for readers. The opinion expressed is my own, and other readers’ opinions may differ. The goal is to provide an opportunity for authors to learn from each other and to see their own “problem scenes” with fresh eyes. In my own experience, hearing what other writers and readers think of some of my own writing scenes has helped give me a fresh perspective, pointing out possibilities I hadn’t even considered.

If you are interested in sharing a scene of your own for a future post, click on the Writing that Scene Submission link. Or, you can suggest a scene from another writer’s work for us to analyze. To see last week’s scene, click here.

Author: Louisa May Alcott

Scene location: Climax of first book (which was published by itself, originally)

Genre: General Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person Omniscient

Little Women:

The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for a bitter wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed getting ready for its death. When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long at Beth, held the hot hand in both his own for a minute, and laid it gently down, saying, in a low voice to Hannah, “If Mrs. March can leave her husband she’d better be sent for.”

Hannah nodded without speaking, for her lips twitched nervously, Meg dropped down into a chair as the strength seemed to go out of her limbs at the sound of those words, and Jo, standing with a pale face for a minute, ran to the parlor, snatched up the telegram, and throwing on her things, rushed out into the storm. She was soon back, and while noiselessly taking off her cloak, Laurie came in with a letter, saying that Mr. March was mending again. Jo read it thankfully, but the heavy weight did not seem lifted off her heart, and her face was so full of misery that Laurie asked quickly, “What is it? Is Beth worse?”

“I’ve sent for Mother,” said Jo, tugging at her rubber boots with a tragic expression.

“Good for you, Jo! Did you do it on your own responsibility?” asked Laurie, as he seated her in the hall chair and took off the rebellious boots, seeing how her hands shook.

“No. The doctor told us to.”

“Oh, Jo, it’s not so bad as that?” cried Laurie, with a startled face.

“Yes, it is. She doesn’t know us, she doesn’t even talk about the flocks of green doves, as she calls the vine leaves on the wall. She doesn’t look like my Beth, and there’s nobody to help us bear it. Mother and father are both gone, and God seems so far away I can’t find him.”

As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo’s cheeks, she stretched out her hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark, and Laurie took it in his, whispering as well as he could with a lump in his throat, “I’m here. Hold on to me, Jo, dear!”

She could not speak, but she did ‘hold on’, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble.

Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking her bent head as her mother used to do. It was the best thing he could have done, far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken sympathy, and in the silence learned the sweet solace which affection administers to sorrow.

Author Perspective: This is a tender, quiet moment, leading up to Laurie’s grand revelation that he’s already sent for her mother and that she’ll be there that evening. Since that upcoming scene is almost lighthearted and comical, this moment needs to be more serious and sad to keep the stakes high.

Little Women: (My comments in blue)

[The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for a bitter wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed getting ready for its death. There is still a month left to the year, yet we are skipping Christmas, as it were, and looking straight to the death of the old year. Interesting choice. I think it heightens the sense of foreboding. Note that anytime you work the word “death” in scenes where someone is gravely ill, it can give readers a jolt, especially if they see the word before they read the context. It can be a good thing, adding to the expectation that, in this case, Beth will die, but it can also feel like too much foreshadowing.]

[When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long at Beth, held the hot hand in both his own for a minute, and laid it gently down, saying, in a low voice to Hannah, “If Mrs. March can leave her husband she’d better be sent for.” I like the detail here. You don’t just say what the doctor said, but you show what he did first. For me, it makes his statement that much more serious.]

[Hannah nodded without speaking, for her lips twitched nervously, Meg dropped down into a chair as the strength seemed to go out of her limbs at the sound of those words, and Jo, standing with a pale face for a minute, ran to the parlor, snatched up the telegram, and throwing on her things, rushed out into the storm. I would probably break this sentence up, having Hannah’s reaction separate from Meg’s or both of theirs separate from Jo’s.]

[She was soon back, and while noiselessly taking off her cloak, Laurie came in with a letter, saying that Mr. March was mending again. This could be interpreted in such a way that Laurie said Mr. March was better, which suggests that he read the letter himself. Something like “a letter which said Mr. March was mending again” would fix it, but originally, I had no problem with it. In a sad moment, most people aren’t going to read other people’s mail.] Jo read it thankfully, but the heavy weight did not seem lifted off her heart, and her face was so full of misery that Laurie asked quickly, “What is it? Is Beth worse?”

[“I’ve sent for Mother,” said Jo, tugging at her rubber boots with a tragic expression. I like the tugging at the boots. It grounds this scene, in action and location, though the tragic expression didn’t really do much for me.]

[“Good for you, Jo! Did you do it on your own responsibility?” asked Laurie, as he seated her in the hall chair and took off the rebellious boots, seeing how her hands shook. Laurie’s taking the boots off is a good show of how he is caring for her, and how familiar they are together (since gentlemen at this time don’t take off ladies’ footgear, usually).]

“No. The doctor told us to.”

[“Oh, Jo, it’s not so bad as that?” cried Laurie, with a startled face. I like the “startled face,” though you probably don’t need it. The dialogue is strong enough to stand on its own.]

[“Yes, it is. She doesn’t know us, she doesn’t even talk about the flocks of green doves, as she calls the vine leaves on the wall. She doesn’t look like my Beth, and there’s nobody to help us bear it. Mother and Father are both gone, and God seems so far away I can’t find him.” This is my favorite passage of dialogue in the entire scene. The outburst is so natural as Jo vents all the ways that pain and the fever is changing Beth. The detail of “flocks of green doves” is great.]

As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo’s cheeks, she stretched out her hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark, and Laurie took it in his, whispering as well as he could with a lump in his throat, “I’m here. Hold on to me, Jo, dear!”

[She could not speak, but she did ‘hold on’, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble. Since this is omniscient narration, you’re stepping away from Jo to the larger scheme of things is natural. If you have a slightly preachy narrator, the statement about the “Divine arm alone upholding her in trouble” works, I think.]

Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting words came to him, so he stood silent, [gently stroking her bent head as her mother used to do. I wasn’t sure from this if he knew this was something her mother did, or if he just happened to repeat an action, unconsciously mimicking her mother.] It was the best thing he could have done, far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken sympathy, [and in the silence learned the sweet solace which affection administers to sorrow. Again, this is your omniscient narrator adding coloring. Consistent use of your narrative style, though some might consider it intrusive.]

 

You’re welcome (and encouraged) to share your own comments, keeping a tone of constructive criticism in mind so we can all learn from this project together. And feel free to disagree with any and all of the advice and comments I gave. Thanks!

Comments Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by martinek15, Creative Commons

One thought on “Writing That Scene: Little Women

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