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Books Column: How to write a classic – it takes just one scene

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams may have happened upon the key ingredient in the recipe for writing fiction that stands out – and he shares it here with you.

Writers, tune in. I think I’ve stumbled upon the secret to producing a classic.

Here’s an exercise: pause for several minutes to reflect on your reading life. You’ve read many good, not to say great books down the years. Your mind’s eye surveys the cascade of jackets, your inner voice breathes stray phrases that have haunted you. Turns out an entire library resides in your head.

If you’re like me, you’ll find that many of the books in this glorious memory palace stay on the shelf, though, covered in a layer of metaphorical dust. You know what their titles are, you know who wrote them, and you know that you enjoyed them. But the vividness of their stories has faded.

Other books, meanwhile, appear as solidly present in your imagination as if you’d just held the physical thing in your hands. They’re there, instantly in front of you, still with the power to produce a gasp, or a tear, or a bath of emotion.

Which of the books in your head will stick with you forever?

In my own attempt to answer this question recently, I realised with a jolt that the books which retain the power to return to me every time they’re summoned, no matter how long ago I read them, have one thing in common.

Their secret is not: sustained brilliance of prose over hundreds of pages (though many of them have this).

Their secret is also not: gripping plot, stylistic innovation or inimitable characters (though many have these, too).

Their secret is as follows: each contains a single, short, defining scene so rich that the part of your mind it illuminates stays illuminated, imperishably, with the scene’s action. The scene literally lives in your head, playing itself out over and over again.

A couple of examples from books I consider to be classics may help illustrate my theory.

In the title story of Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories, the main character is whipped by a Boer with a sjambok, but gains the upper hand through laughter; the scene ends with the unforgettable sentence, “The blows stopped; and I knew I had crushed him.” I first read this book in the early 1990s: I can still see the whipping; hear the laughter; and feel the character’s triumph.

In To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf there’s a frozen moment when one of the Ramsay daughters, Prue, descends the stairs to join a dinner party. She’s just seen the harvest moon through a window, and catches everyone gazing up at her. She pauses, then speaks, and her formidable mother sitting below changes utterly, becoming “like a girl of twenty, full of gaiety”. The big moon, the contemplative descent, the sudden turn and the pregnant emotional swell that follows in its wake repeat like a gif in my head.

Rohinton Mistry’s epic novel A Fine Balance contains a closely-choreographed scene in which a woman who resents the family she’s living with sets aside plates for them to dine off, which had earlier been used by her beggar friends – the ultimate, invisible revenge. The everyday drudgery of handling dishes and the undetonated bomb of hatred the underlies the woman’s movements combine into a spell that I’m perpetually cast under.

There is a grace to these scenes that writers working “in flow” seem to conjure in regular bursts. But beyond this, there’s action, emotional potency and visual vigour: you can see what’s happening, and what you see takes up permanent residence in your grey matter. For me, it’s the same, book after book after book: those that rise above the status of mere masterpieces, and accordingly have a shot at immortality, provide a brief, coruscatingly brilliant flash of life at some point in their pages.

Thus, writing a book that lasts requires that you find a place where your story might emerge from its standard unfolding into an exploded moment that delivers a singular combination of emotion and action, then returns the reader to the main narrative – but not without having left an indelible impression.

That’s the key to a classic: it’s down to how that one scene lives in your readers’ minds.

And the thing is – all you need is one. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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