Friday, January 11, 2019

You Have a Great Scene, But What to Do With It?

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

I’m sitting in a sterile hospital room with my husband. He’s here to find out the impact genes, age, and eating habits (I won’t discuss all those fast food and Dunkin’ Donuts wrappers I find in his truck) has had on his heart and arteries. A nurse enters and instructs him to take everything off and put on the blue-print dressing gown folded on the bed. “It opens in the back,” she says. Bob starts to undress. He understands her directive conveys another message: from this point on he will relinquish his right to privacy, what he usually keeps covered will now be laid bare. 

After he’s wheeled off to surgery, I go to the cafeteria, buy a coffee and sit. It’s early and the place isn’t busy. Several computer-carrying Starbucks aficionados wearing jeans and untucked shirts chat with each other as they wait in line. A trio of hospital workers in green scrubs enters. They’re singular in purpose—purchase their drinks and leave as quickly as they came. I note how straight the woman a few tables down from me sits as she works on her computer and automatically sit straighter in my chair. The woman is fiercely stylish with her slick dark hair and big bold glasses. The leopard lining of her coat matches her leopard heels. 

Movement at the entrance of the cafeteria catches my attention. A man shuffles in pulling the IV pole he’s attached to alongside. Skinny bare legs protrude from the hem of his hospital gown, a gown like the one my husband has, a gown I know opens in the back. He comes my way. I think it brave of him to want something (he too is headed toward Starbucks) so much that he’s willing to expose his vulnerability, to shed the image his street clothes would normally provide and show up instead in a flimsy cotton gown. But how much is he willing to expose? I have to know. 

As he passes inches from my table, I turn and look. Although it would have made a far more spectacular ending had it been otherwise, I am relieved to glimpse a pair of black gym shorts under the slit in the gown.

That is the scene that’s hunkered down in my mind for the past few days. I want to use it to illustrate something for my long-overdue post. The question is—what? 

So often nonfiction writers, in particular, come up with a theme or point they want to make and then scramble for the illustration. The benefit of this approach is the initial clear direction and order. The danger is the potential for tacking on a contrived example that is forced into supporting a weight it wasn’t meant to bear.

But the same challenge exists for those of us who start out with an idea, image or scene without knowing where it is going. Just because something happened doesn’t make it meaningful. We can continue writing in hopes the story or truth will emerge like a mastodon tooth from a melting block of ice. We can cut the darling scene loose and start anew. Or we can call a critique friend for advice.

Initially I came up with three possible directions from my scene:
  • Exposing ourselves in our writing—how much, how little? How will the reader know if we’re holding back? (This idea played off the hospital gowns at the beginning and end and the general sense of vulnerability being in a hospital brings. It would probably appeal most to memoirists and people writing hard stories.)
  • The part clothing plays in revealing much about our characters (and selves). How we can use it to explore status, position, and attitude. (I thought this would be a fun topic and it fit with both images—the robed people and the ones in the cafeteria.)  
  • Satisfying endings versus downer endings—when the psychological or surprise twist works and when you wished you hadn’t stayed up all night reading only to find out it didn’t. (Inspired by the anticipation of seeing what was at the end of the man with the IV approaching me. The frustrating ending of the psychological thriller I just finished also contributed.)

Unable to decide, I asked the advice of my three critique partners. Great supporters that they are, they promptly responded—each with a different answer. One suggested I explore my dilemma—what should a writer do when she has a great scene but doesn’t know where to go with it. 

And so I did but now ask you. Which approach do you use? What do you do when the story or truth or theme is slow to emerge but the scene refuses to go away? And—which of the above possible topics best fits my scene?

As for my husband, it turns out that the donuts have done their damage and he will return to don the gown and face major surgery, after which, we’ve been told, he’ll feel like a new man. May it be so.


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Well adding to it, it read to me as a scene where everyone is following their own path in life with little interaction. Lol Appreciate the reminder to use different approaches and not always come from the same angle to keep things fresh - for ourselves as well as the reader! :) Expecting the best for you and your husband!

    1. Hey Chris, Thanks for the input. You actually added a dimension I hadn't thought of--all the angles one can get from the same scene! And thanks for the best wishes.

  2. Talk about exposing are my comments. :) 1) Why does the nurse always say the gown opens in the back. Don't we already know that? and 2) I like your #3 option because it's such a disappointment when books don't end well...but does that suggest we'd rather the man in the gown NOT have on gym shorts? :)

  3. Exposing themselves is what writers do, isn't it, Karen! Thanks for jumping in. Haha about the ending. No! I think my relief would be what I'd want to happen--not necessarily a happy-ever-after (I did grow up with Old Yeller, sob)and I did think both got what they deserved in Gone Girl, but when it's a depressingly villainous victory and the one you're rooting for ends up incapacitated--ugh.

  4. Either one of the first two was good. I've had enough of the last kind of books lately. Phew. And best wishes from here as well. Even if ya'll have gone on to bed. Have a great Saturday, Marcia.