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.

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Author: Charles Dickens

Scene location: First third of the book

Genre: General Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person Omniscient

Oliver Twist:

It was Smithfield that they were crossing, although it might have been Grosvenor Square, for anything Oliver knew to the contrary. The night was dark and foggy. The lights in the shops could scarcely struggle through the heavy mist, which thickened every moment and shrouded the streets and houses in gloom, rendering the strange place still stranger in Oliver’s eyes; and making his uncertainty the more dismal and depressing.

They had hurried on a few paces, when a deep churchbell struck the hour. With its first stroke, his two conductors stopped, and turned their heads in the direction whence the sound proceeded.

“Eight o’clock, Bill,” said Nancy, when the bell ceased.

“What’s the good of telling me that; I can hear it, can’t I!” replied Sikes.

“I wonder whether THEY can hear it,” said Nancy.

“Of course they can,” replied Sikes. “It was Bartlemy time when I was shopped; and there warn’t a penny trumpet in the fair, as I couldn’t hear the squeaking on. Arter I was locked up for the night, the row and din outside made the thundering old jail so silent, that I could almost have beat my brains out against the iron plates of the door.”

“Poor fellow!” said Nancy, who still had her face turned towards the quarter in which the bell had sounded. “Oh, Bill, such fine young chaps as them!”

“Yes; that’s all you women think of,” answered Sikes. “Fine young chaps! Well, they’re as good as dead, so it don’t much matter.”

With this consolation, Mr. Sikes appeared to repress a rising tendency to jealousy, and, clasping Oliver’s wrist more firmly, told him to step out again.

“Wait a minute!” said the girl: “I wouldn’t hurry by, if it was you that was coming out to be hung, the next time eight o’clock struck, Bill. I’d walk around and round the place till I dropped, if the snow was on the ground, and I hadn’t a shawl to cover me.”

“And what good would that do?” inquired the unsentimental Mr. Sikes. “Unless you could pitch over a file and twenty yards of good stout rope, you might as well be walking fifty mile off, or not walking at all, for all the good it would do me. Come on, and don’t stand preaching there.”

The girl burst into a laugh; drew her shawl more closely round her; and they walked away. But Oliver felt her hand tremble, and, looking up in her face as they passed a gas-lamp, saw that it had turned a deadly white.

Author Perspective: This is one of the first scenes where Nancy is contrasted with the other criminals, giving us a chance to see her as a human being, capable of pity and possessing a heart. Before this point, she is just another criminal, but this scene begins to set her apart.

Oliver Twist: (my comments in blue)

[It was Smithfield that they were crossing, although it might have been Grosvenor Square, for anything Oliver knew to the contrary. The night was dark and foggy. The lights in the shops could scarcely struggle through the heavy mist, which thickened every moment and shrouded the streets and houses in gloom, rendering the strange place still stranger in Oliver’s eyes; and making his uncertainty the more dismal and depressing. This paragraph is effective without being effusive. Some people, when dealing with mist and gloom, tend to get poetic; others are much more matter-of-fact, and I think you achieved a nice balance. You set the place without a great deal of gushing. However, I think you could’ve added a great deal more sensory details besides sight here. The smells, the sounds, the feel—a warm fog or a cold one?—would all add to Oliver’s uncertainty.]

They had hurried on a few paces, when a deep churchbell struck the hour. With its first stroke, his two conductors stopped, and [turned their heads in the direction whence the sound proceeded. This is good, if you want an old-fashioned phrasing here. Otherwise, you could just saw “turned their heads towards the sound.”]

[“Eight o’clock, Bill,” said Nancy, when the bell ceased.

“What’s the good of telling me that; I can hear it, can’t I!” replied Sikes. This is my favorite exchange of dialogue in this section. She comments on the time, and he gets irritable. It suggests that maybe, just maybe, Sikes has a little heart himself.]

“I wonder whether THEY can hear it,” said Nancy.

[“Of course they can,” replied Sikes. “It was Bartlemy time when I was shopped; and there warn’t a penny trumpet in the fair, as I couldn’t hear the squeaking on. Arter I was locked up for the night, the row and din outside made the thundering old jail so silent, that I could almost have beat my brains out against the iron plates of the door.” I liked this paragraph, too. Instead of focusing on the young men who are going to be executed in the morning, he’s gone back to himself, to when he was in jail for a night. And this is almost a play for Nancy’s sympathy, a kind of bragging of what he’s gone through.]

[“Poor fellow!” said Nancy, who still had her face turned towards the quarter in which the bell had sounded. “Oh, Bill, such fine young chaps as them!” Very nice! The first line makes us think Nancy has fallen for Sikes’ sympathy plea, but then the next line shows that she wasn’t even paying attention to him. Her entire focus is still on the “young chaps” in jail.]

[“Yes; that’s all you women think of,” answered Sikes. “Fine young chaps! Well, they’re as good as dead, so it don’t much matter.”

With this consolation, Mr. Sikes appeared to repress a rising tendency to jealousy, and, clasping Oliver’s wrist more firmly, told him to step out again. This is a touch of telling, rather than showing. Instead of our deducing that Sikes is getting jealous from what he says (which is fairly apparent, I think), you take the next step and spell it out to us. I don’t think you need it, but if that’s the kind of narrator you want, then it works. At least you haven’t gone off on a paragraph explaining why Sikes is jealous, who he’s jealous of, and whether he ever really cares enough to be seriously jealous.]

[“Wait a minute!” said the girl: “I wouldn’t hurry by, if it was you that was coming out to be hung, the next time eight o’clock struck, Bill. I’d walk around and round the place till I dropped, if the snow was on the ground, and I hadn’t a shawl to cover me.” This was sweet. Her description of the depths of her care, extending it be being shawl-less and walking in the snow, was quaint, but very concrete. Nowadays, characters would use more hyperbole, but this fits. She’s dealt with hunger and cold and lack of warm clothing, and so that’s how she expresses herself.]

[“And what good would that do?” inquired the unsentimental Mr. Sikes. I don’t think you need the term “unsentimental” here. It’s very clear from his speech that her touching description of how she’d demonstrate her feelings means nothing to him.] “Unless you could pitch over a file and twenty yards of good stout rope, you might as well be walking fifty mile off, or not walking at all, for all the good it would do me. [Come on, and don’t stand preaching there.” Interesting choice of term. By his saying “preaching” instead of “talking” or “nattering,” it suggests that he knows that she’s urging him to care more than he does. And he doesn’t completely dispute with her assessment of him, but, being practical, doesn’t see the point of caring any more than he already does.]

[The girl burst into a laugh; drew her shawl more closely round her; and they walked away. Nice. She laughs when she would be crying. But I think you could almost use an adjective here, describing the laugh. Were they hysteric giggles, or a rough, short outburst, almost like a cough of emotion?] [But Oliver felt her hand tremble, and, looking up in her face as they passed a gas-lamp, saw that it had turned a deadly white. Very effective, I think. Keeping with the dim lighting, you explain how he can see her face, but you describe it simply, clearly, as Oliver himself would see it.]

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 hotblack, Creative Commons

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