Books and movies have scenes and sequences that live forever in our memories. Some of these are climaxes. Great beginnings, especially those that vividly introduce characters, can also stay with us. And, occasionally, a grand level of spectacle can have that kind of an impact.
But, there are also I scenes I hold onto that are none of these. I call them “emblematic” scenes, I’m still exploring what these are, how they are put together and what they mean to me, so I may say more in the future.
An emblematic scene consists of four elements:
- The protagonist (or a stand-in)
- The antagonist (made substantial in some way)
- An expression of the story question (often demonstrating both the external and internal conflicts)
It is the whole story in miniature, with a clear example of what happens if the protagonist fails.
For instance, Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, because he defies tradition and convention, saves a man who is left behind in the desert. This shocks everyone and hints at the catalytic power he has to transform the Arab people. He just needs to follow his own understanding of reality and get others to follow his lead. But the saved man falls directly into a habit of stealing from a rival tribe and law says he must be executed. If he is executed by someone from the aggrieved tribe, the fighting force will split before they achieve their objective, so Lawrence puts himself into the tradition and does the conventional thing – he execute the man himself. It’s a clever, pragmatic solution that highlights how damaging clever, pragmatic solutions (from the British and French) are and how vulnerable the Arabs are to manipulation because they are locked into tradition.
Can Lawrence overcome tradition to forge an Arab nation and create a place for himself (an outcast in the West, based on his illegitimate status). Lawrence (protagonist) faces tradition, grapples with it head on with success, only to have it reemerge and vanquish him. His role as executioner only works because he is an outsider/outcast. He keeps the tribes together for an eventual victory, but he strengthens tradition and exposes his outsider status, frustrating his need to belong.
I love it.
There are lots of examples like this in the novels and films I reference in my life and in my writing. (As an example of a stand-in, in An Officer and a Gentleman, Zack Mayo’s reflection, Sid, proposes marriage to his girl, is turned down, and kills himself. Again, this is the story in miniature, with a tragic ending.)
Emblematic scenes add power to a story. They highlight the main elements, create concern for the audience/reader, and express the theme.
There are three things I’ve noticed that get in the way of what could be emblematic scenes, and I’m looking for them in my own writing now.
First, an element might be missing or unclear. If you look at all of the ones that work, it is easy to discover the elements – there is no ambiguity.
Second, these scenes and sequences are spare. There is nothing extra. There are no distractions. Everything is trimmed away except what’s necessary.
Third, they do not hold back. In the two examples, characters die and it is extraordinarily painful for the protagonists. The hero is put through hell itself, not a near equivalent. Failure is much more than unpleasant or inconvenient. It almost brings the journey to an abrupt end.