It’s hard, when I get to that moment I’ve been building toward, where everything has come to a head and something has to happen. How do you handle scenes of high emotion without melodrama but still with impact? Seems my pendulum always swings back and forth between the extremes of giving up drama and giving up impact.
For some answers, I turned to a novel I’d read years ago.
Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about an American girl living in Britain when things really hit the fan–they’re invaded and conquered by a mysterious, unnamed enemy. It’s a young adult romance and adventure novel that is both emotionally impactful and full of suspense. There are few novels I recommend as easily as this one, even to people who don’t often read. It reads quick and leaves a mark. It balances blot and character masterfully. And the prose is beautiful in a simple, streamlined way.
For my purposes, I analyzed a scene toward the middle, at the end of a chapter of descriptive summary, little more than a list of chores in this fairly transitional moment of the story. Read the short scene below:
And then in almost a lazy kind of way the checkpoint guy who’d been looking at him raised his gun and pulled the trigger and there was a loud crack and part of Joe’s face exploded and there was blood everywhere and he fell over out of the truck into the road.
Piper watched the whole thing without moving a muscle but the shock of it made me retch and I had to turn away over the side of the truck. Someone else was screaming and when I turned back the whole world seemed to have slowed down and grown quiet and from inside the silence I watched the guard go right back to chatting with his friend and saw Major McEvoy’s head roll back for a moment and his eyes close and a look of despair crumple up his face and in that split second I wondered whether he was really that attached to the kid and then it was with horror that I looked down and saw that Joe was still alive, gurgling and trying to move the arm that wasn’t caught under his body and when I looked back at Major M I realized he was doing what he felt was his duty as a member of the armed forces defending a British national and still in slow motion he was climbing out of the truck and his plan must have been to get Joe to his feet somehow and then to safety when I heard about a hundred shots from a machine gun and the momentum of the blasts hurled Major M backward across the road away from Joe with blood welling up in holes all over him and this time you could see Joe’s condition was 100% dead and with brains splattered everywhere and our driver didn’t wait around to see what might happen next but just stepped on the gas and as we drove away I thought I felt tears on my face but when I put my hand up to wipe them it turned out to be blood and nobody made a single sound but just sat there shell-shocked and all I could think about was poor Major M lying there in the dust through I guess he was much too dead to notice.
There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War.
And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling (103 – 105).
At five paragraphs and about two pages, this is a decidedly short scene (although not too short for the book’s average), but it does a deceptive amount of work to both control the drama and heighten the impact. It’s doing a good bit of complex work to maintain this delicate balance, and I’ll try to pick that apart here.
First a brief outline of the scene, as I see it:
Paragraph 1. (Setup). Scene conflict begins, exposition is given with a humorous tone.
Paragraph 2. (Escalation). One shot. A distant description of the bloody scene.
Paragraph 3. (Reaction & Further Escalation). A wide range of reactions from a number of different people. A little more humor. Much longer sentences.
Paragraph 4. (Deflation). A very muted response and a clean getaway that also connects the loss of life to the wider world.
Paragraph 5. (Effect). A single, punchy line on how the protagonist has been changed by this scene.
So how does this scene attempt to control drama, minimize melodrama? There are a number of ways that this is being done. Paragraph 1, for instance, seems only to exist for this function. It’s using humor to deflate the tension, exposition to slow the pace, summary (mimicking the rest of the chapter, which was fairly low-key) that creates a level of distance, and it even uses a linguistic trick to add to the drudgery (“usual checkpoint”). It’s routine. It’s a chore–just like the rest of the chapter, this will be every-day. That, of course, is not how it pans out.
Paragraph 2 uses a similar linguistic trick when it describes the shot as “lazy”–the laziness of it reduces the melodrama. In Paragraph 3, a return to humor seems to aid the reduction of melodrama (100% dead). We also get a number of characters who fail to react in any active way to this shot–Piper watches “without moving a muscle,” the guard goes “right back to chatting with his friend,” and the driver who did nothing but “not wait around.” These muted reactions serve as a counter balance to the descriptions of gore and to the narrator’s response. Paragraph 4 continues the muted response, allowing it to spread to the rest of the car. Meanwhile, Paragraph 5 does little to manage the drama–how does the scene’s final line have such a strong impact?
While Paragraph 1 is the touchstone paragraph for controlling melodrama, Paragraph 3 is its counterpart, a keystone in developing impact. It does this in a large number of ways. Firstly, we have the more dramatic character reactions: the narrator, who retches, and Major M, who reacts with nothing short of anguish, not to mention Joe himself, twitching on the ground. There is also the natural drama of further escalation of the conflict (going from Joe, a minor nobody, dying to the death of Major M, who we’ve come to know and who was a central figure of this chapter, and the imagery usage (like tears that transformed into blood). Beyond those things, there is also the massive and sudden stretching of sentence length (so long it’s almost beyond comprehension) using polysyndeton (lots of “ands”) that makes each sentence feel like a constant barrage of horrors.
The other paragraphs build upon this one, adding minor touches of drama to increase the impact. In Paragraph 2, drama comes from the conflict escalation and the use of face-explosion imagery. In Paragraph 4, emotions are driven home by revealing the delayed anger of the driver (This is a War) and focusing on who is hurt (Major M’s wife). Finally, in Paragraph 5, the tragic punch line, a single, lonely line, a structure that serves to emphasize how alone the narrator feels, further hitting home the imagery of falling.
It’s the delicate balance of this passage that makes it work so well. Just look, for instance, at the “sandwich” created by the first paragraph, which only works to reduce melodrama, and the fifth paragraph, which only works to increase impact. And the sparseness of Paragraph 2 contrasts with the extravagance of Paragraph 3 to create a similar sense of balance.
Ultimately, what I take from this scene is that, while there are consistent strategies worth knowing for reducing melodrama and increasing impact, the brilliance of this scene comes from structure–how those methods are designed to balance each other.
Is there anything you’d add? Are there any scenes that you’ve read that should have been melodramatic but ended up deeply moving you without going over the edge? I’d love to hear about this or anything else you have to say.