Craft Capsule: The Edge of a Scene

Blair Hurley

This is no. 109 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Writers are good at standing around the margins. So many of us are accomplished wallflowers who prefer to linger on the edges of someone else’s good time at the dance or in the crowded bar, content to watch and listen. How many times have I gone to a party only to find all the writers in the kitchen, away from the loud music?

In grad school I was a shy, nervous twenty-two-year-old in New York City among people in their late twenties and thirties who had already settled into their cigarette habits and their favorite underground bars. I was desperate to belong, to be in the center of the coolest conversations and most world-shaking experiences. Anyone who has lived in New York at some point in their lives has probably felt this FOMO hard—it is tempting to think that the story-worthy experience is always happening somewhere else. I drifted shyly from one party to the next, arriving embarrassingly early and leaving too soon, riding home on the subway when people were just heading out for their adventurous nights. I kept wondering what I’d missed. But now that I’m a little older, I have realized how much life is happening in the kitchen during parties! And I can see how important it is to look around the edges of a story and locate the unexpected places and times where drama is unfolding.

It will always be difficult to look past the ready-made scenes we have internalized from books and TV: the break-up scene, the interrogation scene, the dinner party scene, the falling in love scene, the bad sex scene. No matter the genre, we have a catalogue of expectations about how a given scenario will unfold. The bailiff says, “All rise,” and you know the courtroom drama that is about to unfold. But the fact remains that people are living their lives outside these tightly circumscribed spaces. People are waiting in the parking lot, stamping their feet in the cold while they wait for the lawyer to arrive. People are washing their hands side by side in the restroom. People are lingering after the party has ended, helping to clean up, because they are close enough friends to do so. People are digging for their coats in the pile on the guest room bed, talking quietly about the people they wish hadn’t come. There are so many rich opportunities for original, inviting conflicts if we just take the time to peer around camera number one.

I tell my writing students to imagine a scene for their character that will be significant: the big confrontation, the first date, the wedding. And then I ask them to imagine writing about the twenty-minute period before the scene begins or after it ends. What is happening to your character in that nebulous time? How do they act when they are not performing for a crowd? Who are they in private, or with a friend or enemy? What is going to throw them off on the subway ride on the way to the party, or on the way home?

Julie Orringer’s revealing, brutal story “Pilgrims” is a brilliant example of allowing a story to lead us around the expected framework of its telling. A family arrives at a group gathering on Thanksgiving. We soon learn that this group of adults has been pulled together because they are part of a cancer support group. The women seem fragile and dislocated; they exchange notes on healthy eating, wheat germ–based diets, new age remedies. We think the story is going to take place at the dinner table and be full of more strained conversation. But that’s not where Orringer’s interests lie. Within a few pages she travels to the treehouse in the backyard, where the children of the suffering parents have drawn together for the kind of uneasy games children who are not friends must navigate. While the adults’ heads bob in the windows, the children engage in battles for dominance and fragile allegiances. They are savage and brutal. They don’t hold back. In the intensity of their play, we start to glimpse the uncertain, frightening households they might be coming from; they are the collateral damage of some kind of war. In this unfamiliar space, the children forget themselves and devolve, Lord of the Flies–style, into violence. The adults, wrapped up in their own concerns, are not watching. The story that we might have thought to be secondary—children playing outside while the adults talk about their woes—has become urgent and primary.

So instead of describing the typical party scene, or the typical restaurant scene, or the typical X scene, take a walk into the kitchen, the basement, or the backyard. Put your characters out of their public milieu and show them in the strange transitional spaces that we all must pass through. Show us the foyer of the church or the upstairs bathroom during the party. Show us the creepy closet in the basement where the kids are playing hide-and-seek. Show us where the introverts hang out and what they’re talking about as the cheerful, expected talk is pattering away in the main room. There are exciting and unnerving things going on in those spaces, and you know how to find them; you’re a writer, after all.


Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted (Norton, 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her writing can also be found in Electric Literature, the Georgia Review, Guernica, Ninth Letter, the Paris Review Daily, and West Branch, among other publications. The recipient of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, she received her BA from Princeton University and her MFA from New York University.

Thumbnail: Keagan Henman