How to state the obvious – obligatory scenes in Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile  makes an obligatory scene into
something special

Stephen King’s The Green Mile is a story about the lives of guards on death row. One of the first things it does is set the scene with an execution.

Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?

Wrong.

Here’s what The Green Mile does.

It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.

The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.

And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.

The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.

I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought?  Surely you don’t have to spell that out.

Wrong. For two reasons.

1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.

2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.

So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.

Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on October 24, 2010 - 11:01 pm

    Great post, Roz–and a great example. King is so good, on so many levels.

    One scene that came to mind to me was the opening scene of The Pilot’s Wife, by Anita Shreve, when Kathryn is woken with the news that her husband is dead–a tough scene to write, certainly, and one that an author might assume has built-in empathy. It certainly would have been easy to start the novel in the post-notification moments, and let Kathryn already be grieving, sure that we might intuitively understand her anguish, but of course, we would have felt cheated as the reader not to have shared that horrific, life-altering scene with her–even if we THINK we could imagine the despair…

  2. #2 by rozmorris on October 25, 2010 - 1:45 pm

    Hi Erika – great example. That’s certainly the type of scene a writer might agonise over – how much to put in, how much to leave to the reader.

  3. #3 by Terry Odell on October 25, 2010 - 2:20 pm

    We recently rented a Sandra Bullock movie (the title of which escapes me, of course) where they replayed the entire situation over and over, each time revealing more of what really happened.

    Even writing a scene where you’re stuck having to re-tell something because you have to get that information to another character, even though the reader’s already got that piece of information, you have to find a fresh and different way to do it.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • #4 by rozmorris on October 25, 2010 - 2:46 pm

      Great point, Terry. Freshness is everything. When you do remember the name of the movie I’d love to know!

      • #5 by Jonathan Moore on October 27, 2010 - 8:25 am

        Premonition? Sandra Bullock jumps all over the place in chronology so we see her daughter’s been in an accident and the root cause before we see the accident. Can’t think what else it could be, and god knows I’ve watched a lot of Sandra Bullock films.

        • #6 by Terry Odell on October 27, 2010 - 2:34 pm

          Yes! That was it. Thanks. It wasn’t a ‘typical’ Bullock film. I’d ordered it from Netflix without paying attention to the synopsis, thinking Hubster would like it, but it was definitely not what I’d expected.

          Terry
          Terry’s Place
          Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  4. #7 by Laura Pauling on October 26, 2010 - 10:38 am

    Great example. And that will go for any scene whether kissing or a fight. There’s always the cliche-like scene or a way to make it stand out. Thanks, Roz!

    • #8 by rozmorris on October 26, 2010 - 1:49 pm

      It should be a mantra. Cliche looming? Get your thinking cap on.

  5. #9 by Hart on October 26, 2010 - 12:48 pm

    I don’t have any brilliant examples off hand. I recently read the Secret Life Of Bees, and i think the example of an abusive father could be done stereotypically, but instead of beating and yelling (though there is a little of that) the MC is forced to kneal on the kitchen floor on scattered ‘grits’ which apparently have the texture of rice, sort of, so hours with that digging into her bare knees–it was just really vivid… it seemed like he was being torturous in a way he thought nobody would recognize for that, which seems just that much more rotten.

    I think you’ve illustrated this one beautifully–and it is a nice reminder how contrast increases impact, and how a ‘newbie’ is a nice way to be able to tell without telling… Not overdone, but something like job training is perfect.

    • #10 by rozmorris on October 26, 2010 - 1:50 pm

      Oof, Hart, that sounds effective and I don’t think I’ll forget it in a hurry. Great example.

  6. #11 by DazyDayWriter on October 26, 2010 - 10:11 pm

    I can honestly say, Roz, that my efforts with fiction have not evolved to this level — to a point where I had to solve problems such as outlined above. But I’m glad to know where to come when that day arises. It gives me a bit more confidence to work on that novel, that short story that is currently underway (albeit slowly). Thanks, Roz, for this information and for sharing it in a way that truly makes sense! Daisy @ http://www.daisyhickman.com

    • #12 by rozmorris on October 26, 2010 - 11:21 pm

      Thanks, Daisy! I’m sure we’ll persuade you to pen in earnest someday! In the meantime, thank you for reading my posts for fun!

      • #13 by DazyDayWriter on October 27, 2010 - 7:11 pm

        And, indeed, I read them for fun and for knowledge and to enjoy your creative spirit that is so inspiring, Roz!

        Looking forward to your upcoming visit to SunnyRoomStudio … I need to get that info up on my facebook page asap! And also on twitter …

        Posting day, probably Sunday, the 7th, but it’s always possible that day will vary by a day on either side depending on what else is going on that week!

        Thanks again for being out there in cyberspace! I have great appreciation for creative and kindred spirits — :)

        Daisy @ http://www.daisyhickman.com

  7. #14 by Jonathan Moore on October 27, 2010 - 8:54 am

    Hi Roz,

    Preparations for NaNoMriMo are on apace. Spent the last two days sifting through books and maps trying to half inch character names (I’ve been unable to come up with a good name for one of my MCs for 2 years – finally cracked it).

    Your post has made me think of some horrendous exposition I had attempted previously, to do with architectural design. It’s one of the pitfalls of writing an alien world that you can’t rely on easy references, so I had a rather dry description. But now I see that what I need is a flashback to show the purpose of the architecture in action, contrasted with modern usage. Cheers – should be much more satisfying to write now.

    • #15 by rozmorris on October 27, 2010 - 9:11 am

      Gosh, today I changed somebody’s novel. That’s got to be good. And it sounds rather a fun scene.

  8. #16 by Teresa Frohock on October 28, 2010 - 9:53 am

    You know what, Roz, I can’t think of a single scene that has stood out to me at this point, but I will be watching as I read in the future. This is a wonderful post, and I’ll definitely be referring back to it for my current work.

    Thanks for giving me another way to think about scenes. ;-)

    • #17 by rozmorris on October 28, 2010 - 10:20 am

      Thanks, Teresa. I think great artists in any field have the ability to make the humdrum and ordinary into something extraordinary.

  9. #18 by jmartinlibrary on October 29, 2010 - 3:35 pm

    Another reason that Green Mile scene works is brilliant use of juxtaposition.

    Look at the scenes layered in The Godfather series. There’s a tension between the images chosen. It always gets to me.

    • #19 by rozmorris on October 29, 2010 - 7:52 pm

      Yes, the juxtaposition is very neat, isn’t it?
      Ah, The Godfather. How right you are – and how could I have forgotten?

  10. #20 by Stacey @ Entropified on October 31, 2010 - 2:31 pm

    Hi – Visiting from The Red Dress Club. Really enjoyed this post and reading more of your blog.

    • #21 by rozmorris on October 31, 2010 - 10:26 pm

      Thanks, Stacey! I’ve found plenty of wonders at Red Dress Club myself.

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