“Keys to a Dramatic Scene”
The key to the dramatic scene is an intruder penetrating a closed circle. In society, we form a closed circle when we have coffee with a friend, or invite people to lunch, or gang up on the schoolyard. There can be violence—a burglar with a Glock Nine breaking down a door—but the intruder can also be an unwelcome wedding guest crashing the party.
A good example in the mystery game is the Sleuth’s Reward Scene in The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie—the classical mystery used by Jack Remick and me when we wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, for Dell. Sleuth’s Reward is a modular scene. The word “modular” tags a scene that crosses sub-genres. In hard-boiled fiction, the sleuth’s reward is money or a kiss blown by an out-of-reach dame. In a Christie tea-cozy, the Sleuth’s Reward is admitting that the killer should die.
Jack Remick and I honed our scene-writing skills teaching in the screen-writing program at the University of Washington, where we developed tools for quick scene-building. One of those tools appears below, the Scene Profile. There, we display a template for creating your own scene profile.
Example: The Scene
Name: Sleuth’s Reward (The Body in the Library)
Character and Stage: Miss Marple recreates the crime for the last time in Conway Jefferson’s sumptuous suite at the Majestic Hotel.
In attendance: Colonel Melchett, Chief Superintendent Harper, Conway Jefferson, and Sir Henry Clithering.
Closed Circle: Upper World hotel suite.
Intruder: Miss Marple, invited inside because she’s the sleuth who solved the case.
Object onstage: Miss Marple’s best evening gown.
Dialogue‑Monologue: Motive (money, the scarce resource base) and method (knockout drug, strangulation, blow to the head, burning) and luring the victim into the trap.
Action: Using words as building blocks, Miss Marple erects a triumphant rhetorical edifice.
Climax: Miss Marple admits she’ll enjoy seeing Mark Gaskell hang.
Symbol/Theme/Ritual: Restoration of order by a proper recreation of the crime.
Summary of the Scene (Useful for submitting your novel to a publisher):
The place of this Sleuth’s Reward scene is Conway Jefferson’s suite at the Majestic, a room with an ocean view. The time is evening, a day or so after the apprehension and incarceration of the killers, Josie Turner and Mark Gaskell. The sleuth wears her best evening gown. The main dramatic device is a series of connected Marpelian monologues ‑‑ facts, motive, the marriage connection coverup ‑‑ climaxed by a ten step recreation of the crime and the sleuth’s admission that she wants to see Gaskell hang.
In this scene, Miss Marple is rewarded by her position in society as sleuth triumphant. She solved the case. She saved Basil Blake from becoming a scapegoat. With shrewd sleuth magic, she saved the Bantrys from losing their social position in high society. The scene drips with a proper restoration of order.
Robert J. Ray is the author of seven novels: Cage of Mirrors, The Heart of the Game, Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, The Hitman Cometh, Dial “M” for Murdock, and Merry Christmas, Murdock. A sixth Matt Murdock mystery—Murdock Tackles Taos—in process. Ray is also the author of a popular non-fiction series on writing, The Weekend Novelist and he shares writing techniques on writing on his blog co-authored with long time writing partner, Jack Remick. Ray is a native of Texas and holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin. Tuesdays and Fridays, he and Jack write at Louisa’s Bakery and Café in Seattle.