Imperfect and Subjunctive Scenes

I’d like to talk about two types of scenes that occur in stories (different media may give them different forms) that are different from the types of scenes we are taught to write in writing classes. In writing classes, and even in literature classes, I have always been told that a scene must create a change in the character’s condition. But neither of these types of scenes present such a change—or at least not in the way we have been taught.

I have chosen to name each of these types after grammatical concepts that are not traditionally considered useful in English.

The first type of scene I’m calling “Imperfect” because it’s the tense one would expect to be used in languages like French and Ancient Greek that have two different past tenses. If you’re talking about a “classical” scene in which something specific happens at a specific time, you’d use the other tense (passé composé in French, aorist in Ancient Greek). The imperfect tense would be used for situations that are either repetitive or continuous.

The best way of illustrating this would be by presenting the beginning of a fairy tale. “Once upon a time, there was a boy named Kaylim who lived in the Kenthi Highlands. He didn’t get along with his twin brother Dansiv or with most of the rest of the tribe because of his violent tendencies, so he spent most of his time alone training with the weapons as though he was dancing.”

This works as the set-up for a story—a very short one—even though none of these sentences capture a single moment in time. Instead, they evoke a continuum, one that can be bracketed by saying, “Then one day, the Chief of the Choni agreed to let Dansiv marry his daughter Lodarn and Kaylim was sent ot fetch her for the wedding.”

There are several scenes suggested in this one sentence: a negotiation between the two tribes that leads to a conclusion, the announcement to both brothers, perhaps even an argument as to why Kaylim might not want to go. But though there are many events, each of them is distinct and far more unique than “Every day, Kaylim would retreat to the garden where he kept his flail.” If one were filming that, what specific day would one choose?

This isn’t just about the beginning of a story, though. After critical events, there is usually a plateau of sorts, where a new status quo is reached. “There, in the desert,” for example, “Kaylim wandered day and night, sometimes sleeping during the day so he could travel at night, sometimes deciding that was foolishness, too. But always, he was thirsty, always hoping beyond  hope that the shimmering on the horizon really was a body of water, but even when it was, soon discovering it was shallow and tasted like dust, and he would long for home. Again, we see that the events are repetitive, which enhances the hopelessness of Kaylim’s situation. Now, one could write out blow by blow what happens to Kaylim along the way, but that would become as tedious in the telling as the experience in the living of it; alternatively, one could focus on a single time this happened (the last time would be my preference) and refer every step of the way to all the other times it was hopeless. This would be a particularly appealing way of telling this part of the story if this time, things turned out differently, but an Imperative approach is still the most economical, if word count is, in any way, an issue.

This idea, though, of dwelling on fears in a scene brings me to the other type. I call this type of scene Subjunctive. The Subjunctive isn’t really all that useful anymore in English, either, except in specific cases such as “be that as it may”; where other languages might use it, English falls back on auxiliarly verbs, like would, could, should and may. This is a mood that a verb takes when it’s in a sentence describing something that isn’t really taking place.

“Kaylim thought of all the things he could do as commander of Alceius’s armies: he could return home and prove to his tribe that he wasn’t the disgrace they all thought him to be. But no, that wasn’t an option. If he took command, he would lead this army to conquer Maxillon—he might even win. From there, he could reach out and conquer the entire world—but should he?”

Each of these sentences suggests a scene, but not a scene that we are meant to imagine actually happening. These summaries can even be expanded and enriched with details, as long as it remains clear to the reader by the end of the summar that they are only taking place in the character’s mind.

There are many advantages to the use of Subjunctive scenes, but the attribute I find most fascinating is the way they open up the possibilities for what a single story could be. All authors have to make choices, not just about what details to include and which to omit for sheer lack of space, but even over what will happen over the course of a story. Subjunctive scenes, in addition to enriching the inner life of a character and creating a sense of foreshadowing and even irony in a tale, can be a way for writers to implement alternative strategies in an environment that is as divorced from the world of their story as the story is from the world in which its author lives.

About Polypsyches

I write, regardless of medium or genre, but mostly I manage a complex combined Science-Fiction/Fantasy Universe--in other words, I'm building Geek Heaven. With some other stuff on the side. View all posts by Polypsyches

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