Sample Scene 3

The Beginning of Beginnings

“I’ve always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop,” says Francine Prose, an American novelist and literary critic, in her 2006 guide Reading Like A Writer (11). I agree that a close study of successful and published authors is an excellent way for self-directed writers to learn their craft. 

When it comes to the writing of “scenes,” I find it especially interesting to read the narratives of playwrights and screenwriters. They tend to be highly skilled in creating “scenes.” In a play or a movie, the story must proceed from scene to scene, without any narrative commentary. So, even when these writers have a fuller range of tools (including the “summary”, they still tend to proceed scene by scene. Certainly this is true of Horton Foote, who I deem to be one of the best—perhaps the best—American dramatists of the 20th century. Others may be better known, but few are more gifted.

Horton Foote is not a household name. He focused on his writing and did not distract himself with the celebrity lifestyle. But as a screenwriter, he won an Academy Award for his adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. That was movie starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. Foote also is well known for his original stories and screenplays “Tender Mercies” and “The Trip to Bountiful,” the latter also an Academy Award winning film.  Foote lived to the ripe age of 95; he died while in Philadelphia, working on the launch of a new play. However, the two memoirs that Foote wrote deal mostly with his youth and early experiences as an actor and then playwright. 

Let me focus on the opening scene from Beginnings. (Not having copyright permission I cannot include it here, but I recommend his memoir as a good one for your study).

Beginnings opens in the middle of the action (“in medias res,” as the ancient dramatists phrased it). Young Horton is riding in a bus that has taken him from Dallas, Texas to the outskirts of Los Angeles, California. He hears the chatter of a hometown acquaintance, who had grown bored with him and now is talking with another passenger. Horton is stuck talking to a woman from Tucson—about the Depression, about the woman’s loss of property, and about the administration of then President Franklin Roosevelt. We soon move into dialogue: “Excuse me,” the woman asks, “What does your father do?”

This opening scene continues with steady dialogue, and occasional prose woven in, most of it being such description as one might find in a play or movie script (e.g. “There was a pause while she thought that over.”) The dialogue seems mostly to be “small talk,” the kind that we might engage in with a stranger. For the most part, the woman asks questions and young Horton responds respectfully to the older person. 

A scene “shows” rather than “tells.” A scene also has action and conflict. In this opening scene, the “action” might not seem obvious—two people sitting beside one another on a bus trip and making small talk. In this instance, the action is not physical but emotional. We learn much about the contrasting emotional state of both people: young Horton and his inquisitor.

Foote went on to become a highly successful playwright, whose acclaim included many Broadway productions. In fact, he came to be known as “the Chekhov of American letters.” In part, what that complement meant was that like the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov, much of what Foote’s communicates in a scene is in “the subtext.” Like an iceberg with much of its mass below the water line, the power of Foote’s scenes are found in what he implies rather than in what he says directly. 

Foote also is a master of dialogue. The conversation in the beginning of his memoir Beginnings seems to be the kind of passing small talk one hears between casual strangers. Yet from this dialogue, one gleans the following direct information about young Horton:

  • His father owns a men’s store and he also manages the cotton farms of Horton’s grandmother, who may have considerable wealth
  • Horton has two younger brothers; he is not a spoiled only child
  • Horton is headed to a school in Pasadena, California to study stage acting; he does not wish to become a Hollywood movie star
  • The Pasadena acting school is expensive; it will cost five hundred dollars for the first year and two-hundred and fifty dollars for the second year 
  • Horton’s family is not rich, but his father (not grandmother) is paying the cost of his schooling
  • Horton feels guilty about the cost, doubly so with the woman “going on about it.” He wishes she “would get off the subject”
  • Horton is focused very much on the present and his prospect of acting school, not on the Depression like his father and friends and the woman passenger beside him.

From the dialogue, we also glean information about the woman:

  • She is married, but she and her husband have no children; the woman seems rather resentful, saying “The Lord saw it another way. Bless be the name of the Lord.” 
  • The woman views the money that Horton will spend on theatre school as a “fortune”
  • In the Depression, the woman and her husband have lost their home and car “to the bank”
  • The woman has pictures of the lost house and car; she seems focused very much on the material side of life—the house, the car, the cost of Horton’s acting course.
  • The woman is going to stay ‘with her people’ until her husband once again can support her.
  • The time is September 1934 and President Roosevelt has been in office for two years
  • The woman waits impatiently for solutions to the country’s problems…and her own
  • The woman is incredulous that people would spend so much money on acting lessons, especially when the school does not guarantee its graduates a job

I am not an expert in reading “subtext.” Yet from the dialogue between young Horton and the woman, I discern the following:

  • Horton Foote’s father loves him deeply, and despite his limited earnings during difficult economic times, he is willing to support his son’s pursuit of a theatrical dream
  • Horton, in turn, has high respect for his father, accepting the man’s political opinions even when he himself does not understand the issues
  • The Depression years are a time of devastating loss and during that time most people viewed such an expenditure as Horton is making on acting lessons as a foolish dream.
  • In addition to her catalogue of loss (house, car, future with children), the woman’s marriage may be at risk. Instead of sticking with her husband through thick-and-thin, she is going back to her people; she may be a person who expects to be supported, someone who takes more than she gives.

The conflict in the scene is mostly in the subtext. Behind the woman’s casual questions and the boy’s respectful replies, we have intrusiveness on one side and resentment on the other. Contrasting with the woman’s sense of loss and grievance, we have the boy’s ambition, hope, and anticipation.

Scene Writing Guidelines

Sample Scene 1

Sample Scene 2

Sample Scene 3

Showing and Telling

Incident and Phase