Hard Labor and Birth of a Difficult Scene

I don’t know about you, but sometimes for me writing a scene can be as arduous as giving birth. I have the characters’ emotions, the setting and where I want everyone placed, all jumbled inside me, and it’s almost a painful process to peel them from my mind one by one and place them on the paper. Then to go back time and again until the scene reads exactly how I first conceived it leaves me exhausted.

For example, this is a scene from ‘Alex’ as I first wrote it…

He heard Janie’s laughter on the patio and he looked out the screen. She and the doctor were relaxing in the shade, and when Jane saw him she waved him out with a bright smile. Alex’s heart swelled. She wanted him there! He chewed his lips, feeling suddenly shy, but he went out anyway. He hitched himself up on the short stone wall between the patio and garden and kicked his heels as he ate a sandwich. They talked softly and drank lemon-aide, and Alex had begun to relax when Adam put his glass down and moved to his side. Alex looked at him warily.
“I’d like to examine your scars now, Alex. I didn’t have time the other night.”
“Why?” Alex’s lips settled stubbornly.
“Because I think they hurt you, and maybe I can help with that.”
Alex sent Jane a quick glance and there was a desperate sadness in his eyes as he removed his shirt. Janie had seen his scars before; she knew how ugly he was. His dreams had been absurdities.
The bright sun wasn’t kind. Adam had to clench his teeth against the cry that rose in his throat. The familiar patterns of a leather belt and metal coat-hanger crisscrossed the boy’s chest and back, but there were puncture marks that made him wince and burn patches too numerous to count. He ran gentle fingers over the deep furrows on Alex’s breast. He could feel the pounding of the young man’s heart.
“How did you get these, Alex?”
Alex’s breath was a hiss. “Mama often took me to the garage and used whatever was at hand.” A violent shudder passed through him. Adam looked up but the boy’s face was averted.
“Show him your legs, Alex.” Janie’s voice was expressionless and Alex gave a small cry of distress, but pulled the cuffs of his shorts back.
“My poor boy,” Adam exclaimed and Alex lifted a startled face. Compassion filled the doctor’s grey eyes for the little boy who’d suffered so cruelly. The tip of the hot iron had scorched the fair skin in several places on each thigh. The pain must have been excruciating. He touched the dead skin with a soft murmur of pity.
“Why, Alex?” The doctor had to swallow. “Why would she do this?”
“I was a bad boy,” Alex whispered hoarsely and his tears dropped on his tortured chest.
“Alex!” Jane sprang to her feet and her voice shook with anger. “That’s not true! Your mother was—” She broke off at the doctor’s quick motion. Alex had jerked as if she’d struck him, and now he covered his face to stifle his sobs.
“Alex?” Adam took his hands and looked in the boy’s anguished eyes. “Won’t you tell me?”
“Mama,” Alex stopped and struggled, and then went on as if he couldn’t lie to himself anymore, “She hated me.” The heartbreak in his voice made them wince.
“No, Alex,” Adam soothed. “She wasn’t well. There was something wrong in her mind. It was never your fault.”
Alex shrugged, and suddenly he snatched up his shirt and jumped from the wall and disappeared into the garden.
A hard enough scene to write the first time through. Then comes the questions. Why is this scene necessary to the story? How strong or weak do I want Alex to appear? How is he coping? What is the doctor’s interest, outside his professional one? Alex doesn’t yet know how Jane feels about him. How much do I want to reveal?
To answer these questions I had to sit with Alex on the patio. What would it be like to be questioned about something you’d prefer to forget? What if the person you loved was listening? How do I show this scene in a way that will arouse the sympathy I’m looking for yet not make Alex appear pathetic? I had to answer all these questions before I could continue.
After an agonizing afternoon, this is what I came up with…

Troubled, he followed Beckett into the empty kitchen, only to hear Jane’s laughter coming from outside. Looking through the French doors, he saw her sitting with Beckett in the shade on the patio. He frowned, not liking how close the doctor had pulled his chair to hers.
He suddenly questioned the doctor’s motives for coming out to the house. He wasn’t that sick. He studied the man’s profile, noting with chagrin that he was both handsome and confident. He shook his head. Just when he began to think he had a chance with her, here was another man ready to step in.
He ran a hand over his face, knowing he wasn’t dealing with his jealousy very well. He looked wistfully at Jane, wishing she would give him some hope.
She caught his eye and waved. Seeing no alternative but to join them, he went out to the patio. He hitched himself up on the short stone wall around the garden and took the plate of eggs and cheese Jane handed him.
After a few minutes of idle conversation about the weather and how pretty the garden looked, Beckett put his coffee down. “I’d like to take a closer look at those scars, Alex. I was busy with other patients at the hospital and couldn’t take the time before.”
Alex took a defensive posture. “Why do you want to?”
“Because I think they bother you. There’s a new silicone cream that could help with that, if the damage isn’t too severe.”
Alex sent Jane a quick glance, and he removed his shirt with a desperate melancholy in his heart. She already knew how unsightly they were, but it hurt to be so blatantly exposed in front of her. Creg had it right. His recent hopes that there could be something between them were absurd.
The sun wasn’t kind. The patterns of a leather belt and metal coat hanger crisscrossed his chest and back. There were also puncture marks that made Beckett wince and burn patches too numerous to count.
Alex jumped when the doctor touched the deep furrows across his breast. “How did you get these?”
He lifted his shoulders. “Mama took me into the garage a lot and used whatever she had on hand.”
“But why?”
“She said I was a bad kid,” Alex whispered.
Jane leaned forward, “It wasn’t true. Your mother was cruel and abusive.”
He averted his face, not wanting to hear anything negative about his mother.
“Alex,” Beckett said. “Why do you think she called you a bad kid?”
“Mama . . .” He struggled for the words but couldn’t find the appropriate ones. There was no sense trying to sugar-coat it. He couldn’t lie to himself all the time. “She hated me.”
“No,” Beckett countered. “She probably wasn’t well. There must have been something wrong with her mind. It wasn’t your fault she was that way.”
He shrugged, overwhelmed by emotions he’d long ago suppressed. Unable to face Beckett and Jane any longer, he snatched up his shirt and jumped from the wall. He followed one of the paths into the garden until a screen of forsythia hid him from their view, then he dropped onto a stone bench. He groaned into his hands, trying to regain control of the frantic boy inside, the part of himself that still cowered from Mama’s cruel mistreatment.
(‘Alex’, copyright 2009 by Dianne Hartsock)

My editor sent me a note on this final version. ‘Well done. Now let’s move on to the scene with Alex in the garden.’
I stared at the screen a minute, wrung out and shaking, then quietly turned off the computer and took my kids out for ice cream and laughter and the joy of a happy life.

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