Sample Scene 1

Betty Enns and her husband Bill served as Country Representatives for Mennonite Central Committee and African Inter-Mennonite Mission in Lesotho, Africa in the mid-1990’s. In her memoir Living Our Prayer, Betty describes their flights from Winnipeg to Amsterdam, Johannesburg, and finally Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Greeted at the airport by five MCC staff, they traveled by van 17 kilometres to the MCC Centre that would be their home for the next four years.

Depending on Betty’s narrative intention, their arrival at the MCC Centre could be presented either in summary form or as a more fully developed scene. Below you will find the same story information, first presented as Summary and then as a Scene.

Summary Approach: 

The day was almost spent when our group reached the MCC Centre. John Yoder unlocked the heavy outer door and toured us through the house—the dining room and kitchen; the master bedroom; an adjacent library; a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom for guests; and the office, which had a separate door for MCC staff to enter. On the office wall, I spied a poster that offered a simple suggestion for peace in Africa: that people who love and worship God agree not to harm or kill each other. I still had that thought in mind when, after a light supper and feeling exhausted, Bill and I headed to an outdoor guest house and retired to a cold, dusty bed.

Scene Approach:

 The MCC Centre was located in the poverty-stricken heart of the black community. The day was almost spent when we at last arrived at the compound, a one-acre yard with a flimsy strand of barbed wire running around the circumference. We approached the metal gate and on a pole that stood next to it I saw a sign that read “We Serve in the Name of Jesus Christ.

    On the yard sat a beige stucco house facing east. It had a corrugated tin roof and black metal bars on the windows. Off to the left stood the guesthouse, a small grey brick building with a pair of swings in front of it. The yard also contained a storage shed, situated just north of the house, well-pruned peach trees, a few wisps of brown grass, weeds, rose bushes, and dust-covered aloe and cacti.  

    John Yoder opened the heavy, weather-beaten outer door and then unlocked and pushed back a metal bar structure. Bill and I followed him in and glanced around the place that in the months ahead would serve as our home and office. The first room, long and rectangular, combined the entrance, dining room, sitting room, and kitchen. The green walls were bare and cracks zigzagged across the grey cement floor.  In the sitting room area to my right several chairs and a maroon-coloured couch circled a woven grass mat. A black wooden table near the entrance door served as the dining area. My eyes were drawn to the kitchen on the left where a raised counter divided the space from the entrance. Three bar stools stood on one side; on the other were clustered a range, fridge, half sink and storage cupboard. This small area would be my work space when cooking and entertaining. 

    A door in the west wall straight ahead led to a bedroom that would become our personal quarters once John and his wife departed. The heavy brown door was closed and we did not preview it. Instead, John pointed to the left and we followed him through another metal-barred doorway and a small entryway into the library. It was furnished with a table, two couches, and book cases. 

    I could hear Bill sniffling and knew that his dust allergies were acting up. Once we took over the operation, we would have to do a thorough cleaning if the Centre was going to be a habitable space for him. His bouts of sinusitis could lead to unbearable migraine headaches.

    There were doorways in three of the library walls: to the north, a guest room with two double-sized beds; to the south, a guest kitchen with an adjacent toilet and shower; and to the east, the MCC office with a work desk, a computer station, two filing cabinets and a copier. The office had a door to the front side of the house and MCC staff had keys so they could come and go as needed, without disturbing activities in the main residence. 

   Walking into the office, I saw two posters that made me gasp in pain and astonishment. One said: “A simple suggestion for peace in Africa: Let all the people in Africa who love and worship God agree not to harm or kill one another.” The other read: “I promise to teach my children not to harm or kill your children.” 

    “What is the real state of this country,” my mind naively questioned, “that there is a need to print posters of this nature?”

    Not understanding the grave circumstances that prompted such posters, and with my stomach in knots, I ate little supper. I felt exhausted as we retired to a cold, dusty bed in the guesthouse outside. In the quiet of the night, to the sound of barking dogs and intermittent gunshots, I prayed: “Lord, I implore you—grant us safety and a night of rest.”  

Note: The preceding scene is a direct excerpt from Betty Enns’ Living Our Prayer: A Four-Year African Adventure into Faith—Chapter 2 (“Arrival “) pp. 40-41 

A Brief Commentary:

Betty might have used the Summary Approach, as illustrated above, if her and Bill’s arrival at the MCC Centre served primarily as a bridge between the rigours of their travel from Canada and their subsequent efforts to orient themselves to the new African setting.

Instead, she used the Scene Approach, developing their arrival at the MCC Centre in much more detail. Why? 

On the surface, the action in this scene seems limited—Betty and Bill arrive at the Centre, tour the house, and then retire to a guest house to rest after their long journey.  Of course, there is more going on. Some of Betty’s description foreshadows the conflict to come—the barbed wire fence around the compound, the metal bars on the windows, the heavy front door with a metal-bar structure behind it, and the two posters in the office, each of which speaks of not harming or killing. In chapters to come, we will read of open violence: break-ins, carjackings, an armed home invasion, and then the outbreak of full-scale war. 

Betty notes Bill’s sniffling, his allergies aggravated by the dry, dusty environment. Quietly this points to a drought-stricken, water-challenged country where MCC was involved with water-rights negotiations. Even more, it points to Bill’s vulnerability.  He was a very strong man, but even he had his breaking point, and in this scene—as later in the story—Betty takes a protective role. 

The scene ends with the sound of distant gunshots and Betty’s prayer for rest and safety. That not only connects the scene to the story’s theme and title (Living our Prayer), but it also anticipates what comes later. This Arrival Scene sets up one of the highest-action scenes in the entire story—the night-time invasion of the MCC Centre by armed intruders. 

In those dramatic moments, Betty cannot stop the story action to explain the layout of the house and who scrambled where. She does that here, establishing the setting in a natural way and reinforcing it in later scenes, so when the moment of crisis comes, readers feel they know the building layout. This scene is called a “set-up scene”; the later armed-invasion one is the “pay-off scene.” 

Scene Writing Guidelines

Sample Scene 1

Sample Scene 2

Sample Scene 3

Showing and Telling

Incident and Phase