Let’s craft two versions of the same scene, one better than the other. I’ll explain the difference afterward.
* * *
Joe came home to find the television eradically buzzing in the living room. He didn’t think much of it, so he simply turned it off before preparing himself lunch. He searched through the cubbard until he had two slices of white wonderbread and peanut butter, the crunchy kind.
He poured himself a glass of milk, then sat down. As he ate, he reflected on the days events. The zombie infestation was unprecedented, full-blown, and all-too-real. Joe always hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. The sound of rapid footsteps prompted Joe to turn and look – a zombie was headed right for him! Before Joe got another bite of his sandwich, the zombie got a bite of him – and Joe was infected.
* * *
Ok, that’s scene 1. Let’s try that again, and see how some simple changes can make the scene more effective.
* * *
Joe slammed the front door the second he set foot inside, blunt axe in hand. Right when he did there was a grumble. Like a dog. Like a rabid dog…
“Hello?” said Joe.
He heard a slow creaking, followed by a sharp snap. Like someone tiptoeing over broken glass.
Joe clenched his fists. He crept through his kitchen. Could one of those things be here? He couldn’t even bear the thought of it. The entire day he’d been running. And he’d witnessed what those monsters did when they got their hands on uninfected humans.
As he walked through the hallway he heard another grunt. It sounded like it came from Julia’s room – his daughter.
Joe quit tip-toeing and broke into a sprint. He kicked her door open just as he heard a window shatter. He entered in to find a parent’s worst nightmare – Julia’s bones were left in a heap of blood in tissue, like left-over ribs. Her head was partly detached, from the gaping hole in her throat, and lying on an ear.
Joe turned her head and stared into her baby blue eyes. He pet back her angelic hair with a shaking hand. “My girl,” he whispered. “My girl.”
There was a creak in her closet. Joe picked up the axe, gulped, then stood up.
* * *
Okay, let’s go over the major differences.
1 – Tone. There is no sense of ‘impending doom’ in the first scene, whereas in the second there is. Style is more important than sounding smart.
2 – Peanut butter and jelly? Who gives a shit. What kind of bread and the crunchy/smooth adds absolutely nothing to the scene. It doesn’t even give the reader a better idea of Joe’s character, so it needs to be trimmed. “Joe made a peanut butter jelly sandwich and ate while he reflected…” Is how it should have read. Take notice – every scene has a focus. In this scene, the focus SHOULD have been the question of whether a zombie was inside his place. PB & J does not strengthen this question in any way. Notice the blunt axe in the second scene does add value (it increases the stakes, as it gives us yet another reason to fear for Joe’s safety.
3 – By far the biggest problem is the late introduction of the zombie. Do you notice how little it mattered when Joe got attacked? Why is that? It was a total surprise. Was it the weak description?
Nah dawg. I could have written the best, most intricate zombie-attack-moves and it wouldn’t have mattered (think about how much better the second version was – and you didn’t even SEE the zombie).
This scene suffered because there was no suspense. You have to prepare your reader for what is to come – you have to tell them (indirectly) what is to come. The moment your protagonists suspects something is up, so will your reader. And guess what? Even if there was no zombie, just a stray cat running through, you would have paid more attention from sentence to sentence. Just like potential girlfriends/boyfriends, readers need something to worry about to keep them interested – and if you go so much as a page without giving it to them, you will lose them for good.
– Thomas M. Watt is a script analyst and author of A New Kingdom