The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as The Killers (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)

The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.

The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.

When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.

The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.

The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.

I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.

First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”

Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.

Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.

Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.

Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?

Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.

If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.

All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?

But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:

Would they really?

Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?

Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?

Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”

So:

  1. Give every character in every scene an objective, even if it’s only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water.
  2. Pit the agendas against each other. Even a scene between two friends or allies should have some form of tension.
  3. Have the characters, even the minor ones, make the best moves they can in order to realize their objectives.

Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.

***

And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.

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28 thoughts on “The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

  1. My husband and I are halfway through the long-running NYPD Blue TV series. It’s entertaining, mostly for the characters played by Dennis Franz and a couple of others. However, I find certain aspects of the show unbelievable as a cop crime show.:

    – The criminal confesses in the first or second police interview. Usually the suspect’s lawyer is not present because the cops convince him/her it will go down easier without a lawyer involved.

    – Suspects, any living victims, and relatives of either are portrayed as pure stereotypes (street-talking dudes, sassy two-bit hookers, arrogant rich people, incoherent junkies, low-IQ lotharios, clueless single parents).

    – Periodically, actors leave the series. To account for these departures, they die under hastily contrived circumstances (commits suicide for no discernable reason, comes down with a vague, quick-acting, fatal disease). Or, they suddenly display career-ending behavior, completely out of character, with no proper buildup (honest cop commits a crime or lies to aid a criminal relative or friend he/she doesn’t even like).

  2. NCIS totally jumped the shark when one of the semi-regular agents (I forget her name) turned bad. And to make it even more confusing, it was all because of her “daughter” who was really her sister. The entire premise was ridiculous.

    My eyes rolled so much in that episode I’m surprised they didn’t get stuck.

  3. Why do characters throw their guns away when they’re out of ammunition? (Writing this on a train from London to Edinburgh. Where are you traveling JSB?)

    • I’m in the great state of Oklahoma at the moment.

      Re: Guns. How many times has the good sheriff shot a bad guy NOT in the center mass, but at the gun in the guy’s hand?

      • The Lone Ranger is to blame for that. Good guys aren’t supposed to shoot people. My dad who was a shooting instructor as well as a business owner who kept a gun on him at all times told my little sister and I, we were very small at the time, “Always shoot them in the gut, then run.” Advice I’ve followed my whole life.

  4. One of the most challenging scene decisions, I think, is the question of why here and why now? Why wait till you get to the diner to discuss the murder plans? Why is a walk in the rain important right now, when you happen to know there’s a serial killer on the loose? Why make the single choice that will trigger the events that follow?

    • Also, the characters “off screen” are all making their best plans while we watch the action on the page. It’s what I call “the shadow story” and should be given attention.

  5. I moan and shake my head every time characters in books, TV, or movies:

    1. Walk down the streets discussing the serial killer and his bloody deeds in a crowd of civilians who don’t know there’s a killer on the rampage.

    2. Sit in diners and talk in normal voices about where they’re going next to escape the villains who’ve chased them across three states. (Or those murder plans, John.)

    3. Stop running from the bad guys to share a dress-up, candlelight dinner.

    4. Cut or die their hair, but change no other aspects of their appearance, or any of their known habits when “disguising” themselves.

    5. Call family or friends while on the run, because no one knows nowadays that the guys who want you dead can track you through your phone.

    6. Heroines who insist on: going out the door; down into the basement; for a run alone at night; staying alone in their home when someone is stalking and trying to kill them. That doesn’t make them strong women. It just makes them TSTL.

    I’ll have to expand on the sarcastic “Really?” I shout when I see these things in books and other media. And I’ll put every scene I write through your “would they really” test, James.

    • A great list, Suzanne. Add to it the talkative villain who can’t help explaining everything to the bound and gagged hero … so there’s just enough time for a rescue.

    • Snicker. Too stupid to live. Got to love those morons, and I’m talking about the writer, not the character. Here’s a comic list I created. Many of my blog readers write paranormal, hence some of the silliness.

      A heroine may be too-stupid-to-live if she

      Doesn’t change her lock or improve security after a serial killer breaks in her home and leaves a threatening note. Nor does she consider staying elsewhere.

      Sends her guards home after the so-far-inept police decide they have captured the serial killer.

      The heroine gets hot for the hero and does something about it when the bad guys are near.

      The trained assassin is sneaking up on her professional bodyguard so the heroine, with no fighting training, attacks him herself rather than yelling a warning.

      The “Full Moon Killer” is savaging locals. The creepy guy next door reeks of Nair, wears flea colors, and buys large boxes of Milk Bones although he doesn’t own a dog, but the heroine isn’t suspicious because “werewolves don’t exist.”

      The heroine has an entire troop of bad guys after her, but she doesn’t call in reinforcements, seek help from the police, or tell the hero she’s in trouble.

      She has the only copy of some incriminating documents, and she doesn’t make copies, or put them in a safety deposit box in her bank. Instead, she leaves them in her apartment.

      The heroine’s blind date drinks really red Bloody Marys, has a bad overbite, and stares at her jugular vein instead of her large boobs, but she isn’t suspicious because “vampires don’t exist.”

      The bad guy asks her to meet him to exchange the documents for the hero, and she goes without back up or a weapon.

      Bad guys are after the heroine so she picks high heels instead of running shoes because she’d rather die than be unfashionable.

      The heroine starts a verbal battle with the hero while they are trying to sneak up on the bad guys.

      Someone is trying to kill her so she wanders around outside and in the cavernous mansion she’s staying at.

  6. I roll my eyes at tropes for trope’s sake.

    1. The cop who became a drunk, because he’s wife divorced him. Get over it.
    2. The 110 lb female cop throwing 250 lb bad guys around with Bruce Lee like moves. Who suspended the laws of physics?
    3. The PI with no business. Who pays for all the coffee and pie they eat in diners?
    4. The police lieutenant who dishes open case information to a PI. Why?

    Maybe the second question could be: Is the why strong enough for the reaction?

    Off topic: Just finished binge-watching “Carnival Row”. Excellent on many levels. It moves paranormal stories ahead to meaningful story-telling. Not for small children. Scary and some nudity.

  7. I’ve found myself asking the same question lately: would my character *really* drop his cover when asked a couple of questions by a covert operative working for another agency? Needless to say, I’ve rewritten that part.

    I’m reading a lot of spy/covert op books at the moment, and what gets me every single time:
    1- discussing their case in public- an airport or on the plane, walking down the street, in a diner or bar. Does national security and black-ops mean nothing to these people?

    2- meeting another spy/covert op and they automagically know the other person’s a spy/covert op. It shouldn’t ever be that obvious. If it is, that other person is *really* bad at their job and has no business being in the field.

    The other thing that bothers me is the sheer amount of head-hopping in these books, but that’s another post, I’m sure.

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