What Do You Remember When You Read (or Watch) Fiction?

What sticks with you after you read a story? Or hear one? Or watch one? Do you remember the plot, or the setting, or the character, or the conflict, or the emotion, or reversals, or revelations? I don't think any of these concepts in themselves work, they don't quite explain it, they don't satisfy me.


Scenes and stories; these seem to be the only two words that describe something that is truly memorable. They are both wholes, while every other concept I mentioned is only a partial. The general idea of the story and the specific idea of the scene work hand in hand. I haven't read or watched "Fight Club" in a few years, but I still remember the story and some scenes. Let's see what I remember.

A man hates his boring life, hates his horrible job, and has really bad insomnia. He develops a split personality, that he doesn't know about, Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden is everything he wishes that he was. The two personalities start fight clubs and the clubs start growing. Tyler blows up his apartment and moves him into an old broken down factory where they run the clubs out of and form another organization called Project Mayhem that seeks to destroy society through increasingly violent pranks. Eventually they try to blow up all of the banking institutions in the city, but the personalities fight, and in the end Tyler Durden is destroyed by being shot through the mouth while the buildings fall in the background.

That seems fairly decent. I tried to keep it short, but it kept growing on me. Let's try a shorter version.

A man has horrible insomnia and hates his life. He develops a split personality that he isn't aware of, Tyler Durden. Together they form underground fight clubs. Out of these fight clubs they form Project Mayhem, which seeks to destroy society by blowing up the banking institutions. In the end Tyler Durden is shot through the mouth while buildings fall.

That's the story. Now, what about the scenes? Which ones do I remember? I will just go through a few of my favorites.

Tyler Durden and his original personality rob a convenience store. They take the cashier outside, take his drivers license, put him on his knees, and put a gun to the back of his head. They talk to him about his life, about what he wants to do with it. Turns out that he wanted to be a vet, but there was too much schooling. Durden tells him that he will kill him unless he goes back to school and becomes a veterinarian. Tomorrow will be the best day of his life, he will appreciate life more, and be pursuing his dreams. It's a very interesting scene. I remember reading it and seeing it clearly.

I remember a lot of scenes clearly from "Fight Club." The first fight between the protagonist and Tyler Durden. Then seeing that fight again as one person fighting himself. People standing on the porch attempting to join Project Mayhem. Bob dying. Some of the fights. Some of the mysterious sayings when the protagonist is trying to figure a few things out. A car crash. I remember a lot of scenes, but I notice something unusual. I'm not exactly sure which order they go in. This brings up an interesting idea. Many screen writers of both shows and features come up with ideas for scenes. Then they move those scene ideas around to make the story. It has seemed like a bit of an odd process to me. Don't they have to go in a certain order? But, it may be that we remember stories and we remember scenes, but the specific order of everything, it's a bit flexible.

How can these things inform my writing? In a few ways. Coming up with a basic story, a one paragraph story, and then coming up with scene ideas to make that story could be a great process. Maybe I need to think in larger wholes rather than smaller pieces. If you're stuck then it could be useful to think about the intention of the character, or the obstacle, or the motivation, but really those are just parts of a scene, and parts of a story. We are trying to create stories that are going to stick with people, and maybe even more than that, scenes that are going to stick with people.

Sol Stein brought up a question like this in his book "Stein on Writing." It seems like he came to the conclusion that characters are the memorable part, but can you remember a story outside of a scene or a story? Who is the protagonist? Describe Tyler Durden? These questions don't even feel important. The best way to describe a character, to explain them, is to show a scene and tell the story. A character is not complete without a story and without the scenes to build that story. We can separate a character and a situation in our mind, but not completely. It may be an interesting exercise to put different characters in different situations, but in reality, even in fiction reality, characters and situations go together.

I believe this is very important for my future reading. You are welcome to join me and see how I use it at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

Also, you are welcome to support my work through patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin

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