Beauty in Layers: Writing Powerful Scenes

Oct 13, 2010

I've been thinking a lot about powerful moments in my life, and what made them powerful. And of course, I've been thinking about how to put this into my writing. This morning, I thought about the summer I was on a crew team (rowing), and something clicked. It was something small, but something that changed me. It was powerful for me. Let's take a look at why.
In college, a friend of mine had hooked up with a crew team, and said it was a blast. The catch? We had to be up at 4:30 am. On a Saturday. But I was curious, so I said yes.

I had no idea how crewing worked. I had never met anyone else on the team. I stood, bleary-eyed, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake that Saturday morning, wondering if this was a good idea. The captain eyed me.

"You're short," he said.

I sighed. Was my 5 foot 1 stature going to get in the way? It wouldn't be the first time.

"Short's good."

I blinked. "It is?"

"Yeah. We need a cox, and you're perfect."

Well. Never before had my shortness been labeled perfect. I would cox til my arms popped off for perfect.

Cox was short for coxswain, and it meant I was in charge of navigation, steering, and giving general orders to the eight-person team. Cox's are generally preferred to be small and lightweight, because they don't contribute by sweeping, or rowing. I was a perfect cox.

After a little training, we rowed out into the lake. Using the "cox box," (basically a mic and a speaker system), I relayed the captain's orders, keeping strokes smooth and navigating in the right direction. We were the only people on the lake. The sun was just coming up, and the seagulls swooped around, calling to each other. The world was wrapped in cold shades of blue. Soft splashes sounded as the oars cut cleanly into the water, perfectly synchronized.

We flew across the lake, our rhythm dictating our speed, and the salty breeze chilled my cheeks. Out there, we were a team, moving as one to achieve our common goal. And I had a part in it-- a part that I filled perfectly because of what I had so long considered a defect.

Is it any wonder I continued to turn out at 4:30 every Saturday morning that summer?

It was powerful to me because of its beauty, and because of the layers of the beauty. So how does this apply to writing? Think of the most powerful scenes you've read recently. Whether they are tragic, happy, horrible, or incredible, there are aspects of beauty in them.

There is physical beauty. Of course, this doesn't mean that every powerful scene takes place in Eden. Even desolation can be hauntingly beautiful. When writing your powerful scene, make it take place somewhere distinctive. Somewhere that echoes the tone you want to create. And be descriptive, using all five senses. I found crewing beautiful because of the colors, the cold, the salty air, and the swishing of the water.

There is emotional beauty. Crewing was powerful for me because it took my weakness and turned it into a strength. It touched me on an emotional level, and changed the way I saw myself. It also turned me into part of a team, giving me relationships with other people. For a scene to be truly powerful, it must have emotional implications for a character-- and therefore a reader.

There is the beauty of the language. The scene must be written beautifully to be powerful. There's just no way around it. I think of it like the rhythm of the rowing. There is a specific knack to rowing, to make sure your oar doesn't get caught in the water. It must be done in perfect synchronization for the boat to move at its fastest. When perfect rowing happens, the cadence and flow of the boat is beautiful and swift. Make your language like that. Precise, but evocative.

It's difficult to create layered beauty in writing. But when it's done right, it can have a powerful effect on the reader. Good luck, my friends, and may all your writing be beautiful!


J.R. Johansson said...

Great post! I want my writing to be as beautiful as your description of that first saturday on the lake. thank you! :)

mshatch said...

I'm short, too, and happy to be that way but as beautifully as you descrobe crewing I don't think I could ever get up at 4:30am to do it. I'm an owl, not a morning dove.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

what a totally awesome story! Short is pretty normal. Almost average, I'd say. :)

I think I'd like to try that at least once!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I have an unrelated to writing crew story, and of course reading this post reminded me of it, so I HAVE to share....

I had a friend in college who was in my Bible study who was the coxswain for our school's crew team. One time we were meeting and she asked our group to pray about something related to crew. So, innocent girl that I was, I prayed, "Please help Jenn with her cox." Everyone burst out laughing and I still had no idea what I'd said that was so funny ... they all had to explain it to me, which was even more embarrassing.

I'm sorry, I hope you don't need to erase this comment. It might not even be blog-appropriate!

But thanks for helping me relive that blush-worthy moment. :)


DL Hammons said...

Your analogy was spot-on! What was even more impressive was your emotional connection to the rowing and writing. Both seem to mean a lot to you, and it shined through.

Michelle said...

Shallee, you have such talent for "breaking it down" for us. Love it! I'll definitely never look at a crew team the same way again. And, I love the "Texas" on the back of the jacket!

Samantha Bennett said...

I love this post! And all your points. Especially number 2. For me, that's what makes a scene really sing.

Private said...

What a lovely story! I hear you on the shortness:) But it's good to analyze nice moments to see what made them nice etc! Great post!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great post! I loved it. I know all about being short. I'm just under 5 foot.

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