The great scene theory
“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)
You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.
I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)
Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.