Writing Secrets: Scenes are like links in a chain

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Each scene in a story is linked to one that came before it – even if not directly before it. Something happens in one scene, which causes a development in one that comes after.

That gives a degree of inevitability to story development, surely. She writes a letter in one scene. She’s likely to post it in the next. He hears that his wife has been unfaithful. He confronts her.

Except that humans are never predictable. She might have second thoughts and decide not to post her letter. Or like Harold Fry in Rachel Joyce’s novel, he might set out to post it, but end up walking across country to see a dying friend. He might not confront his wife. Instead, he could hold his tongue and set about plotting his revenge, or simply show his resentment through a multitude of passive aggressive acts.

Sometimes the link between scenes is obvious. Something happens which causes something else. Sometimes that link is less obvious, embedded in the psychology of human nature.

I’m reading Manhattan Beach, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan’s latest novel. Set in the 1930s and ‘40s, it introduces us to Anna, who wants two things: to discover what happened to her father, who disappeared while she was a child, and to be a diver for the navy – an occupation previously unheard of for a woman.

She once had a sister, who was severely disabled: unable to sit up, dress herself or speak. Anna loved her dearly, helped with her care and confided in her, although Lydia was unable to respond.

Anna always held a picture of the girl Lydia could have been – a beautiful girl with flashing knees, running and playing, laughing and singing.

Working as a diver, Anna becomes pregnant. This is her worst nightmare. Not only will it spell ruin for a young unmarried woman in the 1940s, but it will certainly put an end to her diving career.

At first she hopes the diving itself will put paid to the pregnancy and, when it doesn’t, she asks a friend, who arranges a Harley Street termination. All seems well. Her life will be restored to its previous equilibrium.

But just as the chloroform mask is lowered to her face, Anna thinks of her dead sister Lydia – of the life she could have led; of the girl she could have been.

“Stop,” she says. “Stop.”

Her pregnancy leads her inevitably to seek some kind of solution. But her feelings about her sister are linked to her decision to draw a halt to the procedure.

There’s a psychological link between the two. We are complex beings. Her decision makes sense to us – despite the fact that she’s likely to lose the thing she loves doing most in the world – because of that psychological link. Because we saw how she felt about her sister, her later decision rings true.

Nothing in a story is random. There’s always a link, even if it’s not obvious or inevitable.

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