In the format of a free, 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: George MacDonald

Scene location: Early in the book

Genre: Fantasy (though called a romance, it belongs to the fantasy/fairy tale genre)

Narrative Style: First Person

Lilith:

At once I followed him: I might be following a shadow, but I never doubted I was following something. He went out of the library into the hall, and across to the foot of the great staircase, then up the stairs to the first floor, where lay the chief rooms. Past these rooms, I following close, he continued his way, through a wide corridor, to the foot of a narrower stair leading to the second floor. Up that he went also, and when I reached the top, strange as it may seem, I found myself in a region almost unknown to me. I never had brother or sister to incite to such romps as make children familiar with nook and cranny; I was a mere child when my guardian took me away; and I had never seen the house again until, about a month before, I returned to take possession.

Through passage after passage we came to a door at the bottom of a winding wooden stair, which we ascended. Every step creaked under my foot, but I heard no sound from that of my guide. Somewhere in the middle of the stair I lost sight of him, and from the top of it the shadowy shape was nowhere visible. I could not even imagine I saw him. The place was full of shadows, but he was not one of them.

I was in the main garret, with huge beams and rafters over my head, great spaces around me, a door here and there in sight, and long vistas whose gloom was thinned by a few lurking cobwebbed windows and small dusky skylights. I gazed with a strange mingling of awe and pleasure: the wide expanse of garret was my own, and unexplored!

In the middle of it stood an unpainted inclosure of rough planks, the door of which was ajar. Thinking Mr. Raven might be there, I pushed the door, and entered.

The small chamber was full of light, but such as dwells in places deserted: it had a dull, disconsolate look, as if it found itself of no use, and regretted having come. A few rather dim sunrays, marking their track through the cloud of motes that had just been stirred up, fell upon a tall mirror with a dusty face, old-fashioned and rather narrow—in appearance an ordinary glass. It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle, with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball.

I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away, but what followed is enough to account for any uncertainty:–could I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture?

Author Perspective: The librarian, Mr. Raven, haunts the house, going in and out from his world by way of the main character’s house, but this is the first transition from the fictional England (presumably the land where Mr. Vane, the main character, lives) to the fantasy world.

Lilith: (my comments in blue)

[At once I followed him: I might be following a shadow, but I never doubted I was following something. Great, concise way of establishing Mr. Raven’s otherworldliness.] [He went out of the library into the hall, and across to the foot of the great staircase, then up the stairs to the first floor, where lay the chief rooms. Past these rooms, I following close, he continued his way, through a wide corridor, to the foot of a narrower stair leading to the second floor. I like how you remain focused. Despite passing rooms like Mr. Vane’s bedroom, guest quarters, boudoirs, etc., etc., you keep us focused on the action. It would be easy to get caught up in Mr. Vane’s speculation of where Mr. Raven is going—does he haunt his own bedroom?—but you stick solely to the general movement, keeping the story going.]

[Up that he went also, and when I reached the top, strange as it may seem, I found myself in a region almost unknown to me. I never had brother or sister to incite to such romps as make children familiar with nook and cranny; Interesting. I think this tells us more about Mr. Vane than about his lack of siblings. Some children will naturally explore without a brother or sister to “incite” them, but he is apparently the kind of person who must be encouraged to encounter adventures. A nice set-up for any explorations he makes in the fantasy realm.] I was a mere child when my guardian took me away; and I had never seen the house again until, about a month before, I returned to take possession.

[Through passage after passage we came to a door at the bottom of a winding wooden stair, which we ascended. Every step creaked under my foot, but I heard no sound from that of my guide. Again, I like the simplicity of description, and your use of sound to remind us that Mr. Raven is very different, very odd.] Somewhere in the middle of the stair I lost sight of him, and from the top of it the shadowy shape was nowhere visible. [I could not even imagine I saw him. The place was full of shadows, but he was not one of them. I liked this. Simple, clear, but very informative. And Mr. Vane isn’t just following him; he wants to see him. It establishes his curious enjoyment of his ghost hunt.]

[I was in the main garret, with huge beams and rafters over my head, great spaces around me, a door here and there in sight, and long vistas whose gloom was thinned by a few lurking cobwebbed windows and small dusky skylights. I gazed with a strange mingling of awe and pleasure: the wide expanse of garret was my own, and unexplored! Again, your narration is consistent. We get enough facts to establish the setting without a whole slew of details. Some would urge you to add more, though: smell and sound, feeling—is it warm or cold up there?—and the concrete facts of what is actually in the garret would be interesting. However, it might change your narrator to have him note such things. He seems rather single-minded, and thus, all those other details would be periphery and unlikely to be remembered when he commits all this to paper.]

In the middle of it stood an unpainted enclosure of rough planks, the door of which was ajar. Thinking Mr. Raven might be there, I pushed the door, and entered.

[The small chamber was full of light, but such as dwells in places deserted: it had a dull, disconsolate look, as if it found itself of no use, and regretted having come. This is my favorite line. It’s a great way to describe the quality of the light!] [A few rather dim sunrays, marking their track through the cloud of motes that had just been stirred up, fell upon a tall mirror with a dusty face, old-fashioned and rather narrow—in appearance an ordinary glass. It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle, with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball. Nice use of concrete details here. By including them now, instead of before, you underscore the importance of the mirror (which is another thing to consider; in adding a great many sensory details, you could distract the reader from the ones that really matter).]

[I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away, but what followed is enough to account for any uncertainty:–could I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture? “A wonderful picture.” Nice. Whatever else a fantasy world may or may not be, it is always full of wonder. And I like the fact that he wonders if it was just a picture. I think some of us, having read fantasies where characters went through mirrors, might be at least a little suspicious of a mirror-shaped picture, but he takes everything as he finds it. Again, his reaction tells us a great deal about him, as a character. We aren’t being told “he is a single-minded, straight-forward person.” We are discovering it for ourselves as we see him in action.]

 

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 TheBrassGlass, Creative Commons

 

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