Instructor Q&A: Chaitali Sen

“The only universal purpose of a scene is to transport readers toward the end of the story. That doesn’t mean the only concern of scene is plot. Description, memories, thoughts, and background information are all important to engaging the reader and moving them toward the end of your story.”

-Chaitali Sen

Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky, published by Europa Editions in 2015. Born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and stepson. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction.

Chaitali is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “The Architecture of a Scene: How to Craft a Vivid Scene from Beginning to End” on Saturday, October 15 at the ACC Highland Campus. In this half-day class for writers of both fiction and memoir, students will analyze a few complete scenes from literature and use the same elements to craft their own scenes from beginning to end. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

chaitali-senScribe: Let’s start with a simple question: What is a scene? When people open a novel, how can they tell when a scene begins and when it ends?

Chaitali Sen: I think the simplest way to think about scene is to look for certain things on the page: Is there dialogue? Are characters appearing on the page much as they would appear on a stage or in a movie? Are the characters interacting with the environment and each other? Basically, a scene has characters that are engaged in dialogue and motion, and a scene is presented in a way that allows the reader to imagine the action playing out, perhaps cinematically. Of course, there can be scenes with only one character and no dialogue, but the character still needs to be engaged in thought and motion in a particular place and time. Beyond that, there are countless variations and innovations.

Scribe: One of the things implied by the idea of “a scene” is that it does, in fact, have a beginning and an end. Some information makes the cut and appears in the scene, and some information doesn’t. Is there a general rule that you’d suggest for what ought to go into a scene? Or, here’s another way of asking the same thing: What is the purpose of a scene?

CS: I’ve been having fun looking for the beginnings and ends of scenes in preparing for this class. It’s not always easy to find an exact beginning and end, particularly when a narrative is especially flowing or seamless. Different scenes have different purposes and therefore will require different things. A party scene will follow some different rules than a scene of someone alone in a fishing boat trying to survive a storm.

A great question for writers to ask themselves when they’re working on a scene is: “What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to show here?” I think the only universal purpose of a scene is to transport readers toward the end of the story. That doesn’t mean the only concern of scene is plot. Description, memories, thoughts, and background information are all important to engaging the reader and moving them toward the end of your story.

Often, the writer needs not one scene but a sequence of related scenes that are moving toward some kind of conclusion. In those sequences, it can be hard to pick out exactly where the scenes begin and end (or does it all count as one scene?), but at the end of the sequence, we can usually see that something has changed, or some pattern has been established. There are many of those sequences in The Great Gatsby, just as an example, but we can find them in any novel or memoir. In other words, you can’t always achieve what you want in one scene, especially when something needs time to unfold.

Scribe: You use the phrase “come alive.” We all recognize that aliveness when we read it. We forget that we’re reading and are completely immersed in the story. Is that aliveness simply a matter of vivid details and descriptions, or is there more to it than that?

CS: Of course some of this is subjective. A scene might come alive for one reader and be boring for another reader. I think it’s important for writers to honor what makes a scene come alive for them, because chances are there is someone out there who agrees. Personally, I like a combination of vivid description, compelling action or dialogue, and something that points to the interior world of the characters–what they are thinking and feeling but perhaps not saying. I like having a handle on what’s going on, but always feeling like there’s more going on under the surface than what I can see right away.

Scribe: In the class description, you write that it’s important to learn how “to end a scene on the right note.” That phrase on the right note suggests that there’s something to listen for in a scene, that an ending is not only about the conclusion of an action. What else can a scene end on?

CS: This is where things get really fun. Entering a scene is so much about establishing the who, what, when, and where, but once you’ve done that work, there’s a lot more freedom to ending scenes. It can be with an image, someone having the last word, a playful bit of language, an epiphany, a decision, or something completely unexpected. Ending on the right note means that it should make sense with what has preceded it and feel conclusive. The reader should feel satisfied that the scene is over, we’ve learned something new, and we’re moving on.

Scribe: Is there a particular novel that has helped you think about ways to start, stage, and end scenes?

CS: I love a good party scene. A vivid party scene can teach you everything you need to know about beginning, ending, and staging a scene. There is a great party scene in Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, which I’ve read over and over and try to emulate. Other masters of the party scene – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jane Austen, and Tolstoy.

Thanks, Chaitali!

Click here to register for Chaitali’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

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