We slide into the Revolution Scene in the Writers’ Room this week as we analyze the 1911 novella Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. We look at the difference between cautionary and tragic tales and discuss what The Hunger Games and The Accidental Tourist have in common with Ethan Frome.
We’re focusing on scenes this season because scenes are the basic building blocks of story. To be able to write a story that works, you must be able to write a scene that works. And we’re using stories that already appear somewhere in the Story Grid Universe. The scene we’re discussing today was discussed in the Story Grid Guild. Of course, we have some new insights, so don’t worry that you’ll have heard it all before.
GENRE AND THREE-ACT SUMMARY
Ethan Frome is a Society Domestic story with a secondary internal Status-Pathetic plot and Obsession Love Story subplot. This week we’re studying the core event, a Revolution scene. This scene is part of chapter IX. You can find the scene here. Because this story is in the public domain, you can download a copy from Gutenberg.org.
Here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary.
- Beginning Hook: Ethan Frome falls for his Zeena’s (his wife) cousin, Mattie Silver, who lives with them to help Zeena, but when she says Mattie must marry, Ethan says they can’t afford to hire someone else. Zeena appears to let it go.
- Middle Build: Over time, Ethan and Mattie grow close, but when Zeena hires a girl to take Mattie’s place, Ethan realizes he isn’t able to challenge Zeena and can’t run away with Mattie. They prepare to separate.
- Ending Payoff: Ethan and Mattie leave for the station, but when Mattie suggests a suicide pact, Ethan agrees. They are horribly injured, and Zeena ends up nursing Ethan and Mattie, who becomes as bitter and unhappy as Zeena had been.
ANALYZING THE SCENE
Scene Type: Revolution Scene
What function does this scene serve in the story?
Core event (Revolution scene), where the core value shifts (spectrum is Impotence to Power), the core need (Recognition) is attained or not, and as a result, the core emotion (Intrigue) is evoked in the reader.
What kind of scene is this?
Conversation in a “car” (like The Accidental Tourist, same scene type with a different genre), but here the mode of transport, a sleigh, is appropriate to the time and place.
What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole?
Core event, this is the scene everyone is waiting for, when the value shifts, and the core need is attained (or not in this case). The core emotion is at its height.
How many people are in the scene?
Two onstage, eight offstage. Interestingly, the real antagonist isn’t physically present in the scene.
Where does the scene take place (location)?
On the way to the station in the small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, in the late nineteenth century.
What is the power dynamic at play in this scene?
The real power dynamic in the scene is not between two onstage characters. Zeena, Ethan’s wife, is not physically present, but exerts pressure and has power over Ethan all the same. Ethan feels compelled to follow orders but wants to engage in his obsessive attraction to Mattie. Declaring that he is taking Mattie to the station is his form of rebelling against Zeena and a way of extending his time with Mattie.
What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire?
In this scene, Zeena wants Mattie delivered to the station because her global object of desire is to exert control and get Mattie out of their home and lives. Ethan wants to extend his time with Mattie because he wants to leave his wife but lacks the will to act on his desire. Mattie also doesn’t want to be parted from Ethan, but her reason is a little different. She wants security and doesn’t want to be sent away.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Event Questions
- What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions?
Traveling to the train station, preparing to say good-bye.
- What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?
Ethan says explicitly “His one desire now was to postpone the moment of turning the sorrel toward the Flats,” where the train station is located. He is delaying. Their object of desire is to spend as much time together as possible and so Ethan is stalling, and trying to delay their moment of separation.
- What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
Ethan and Mattie begin the scene with some agency or autonomy as they’ve chosen to spend time together instead of arriving at the train station on time, and end the scene severely injured and incapacitated.
Agency to Incapacitated
- What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
Ethan and Mattie want to be together, but since that isn’t possible in life they make a suicide pact so they can be together in death. In the end, they’re together in illness.
Five Commandments of Storytelling
Inciting Incident: Ethan decides he will take Mattie to the train station to prolong his time with Mattie. (Causal)
- They see a group of boys sledding (Ethan remembers and mentions that he and Mattie hadn’t gone sledding together).
- Mattie doesn’t respond (prompting Ethan to fill the silence).
- They crest a hill, which prompts Ethan to offer to go sledding, despite the risk of being late.
- Mattie protests about the time and the girl waiting at the station (Ethan dismisses her concerns).
- They don’t have a sled (they find one and decide to borrow it).
- Mattie wraps her arms around Ethan and kisses him (Ethan responds that he can’t let her go).
- The church clock strikes five. Their time is up. (Ethan tells her he won’t give her up, and Mattie agrees she can’t be parted from him.)
Turning Point Progressive Complication: Mattie suggests they use the sled to crash into the big elm tree to die by suicide and avoid life apart. (Action)
Crisis: Does Ethan agree to attempt suicide or risk life without Mattie? (Best Bad Choice)
Climax: Ethan agrees with Mattie’s plan, trusting he can steer the sled right into the tree.
Resolution: At the last minute, Ethan decides to ride in front, so he can feel Mattie’s arms around him, which makes it harder to steer the sled. While approaching the tree, he sees an image of Zeena’s (his wife) face, and his reaction affects the movement of the sleigh. He and Mattie hit the tree and suffer severe injuries but remain alive.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SCENE?
Valerie: Ethan Frome was published in 1911; 110 years later, this notion of a suicide pact is still being used to great effect in literature—a recent example is The Hunger Games (book one). I don’t know if this was a common device prior to 1911, but it certainly has endured since that time and it can be a very effective turning point scene for a story—and it works across genre. It can resolve in a number of different ways, each option shooting the story off in an entirely different direction. In Ethan Frome, it leads to a sort of damnation that’s tied to the impotence. One of the characters even says that it would have been better if Mattie had died in the “smash-up”.
We’re often asked if the Five Commandments of Storytelling should be spaced in a certain way in a scene. That is, the inciting incident in paragraph one, the turning point at the halfway mark, etc. The answer is no. This is the artist’s choice and will vary depending on what you, as the writer, want the scene to accomplish. This scene in Ethan Frome takes a while to get going. This is partially because of the time it was written of course. In the copy I have, the inciting incident is on page four of 17. The turning point is page 13, crisis pages 13-14, climax page 15 and resolution pages 16-17. So, most of the action is at the end of the scene. Most of the scene is taken up with Ethan and Mattie lamenting their separation.
This is a terrific example of essential action. Often essential action is conveyed through subtext, but it doesn’t have to be. It takes Ethan and Mattie a long time to address what’s actually happening. It reminds me a little of the opening scene in The Accidental Tourist; two people in a moving vehicle (car v sled) talking about anything but the thing they really need to talk about. There’s an elephant in the room.
Leslie: There are a lot of interesting elements to this scene and the whole story. It is a true cautionary tale. Ostensibly, Ethan gets what he wanted—to not be parted from Mattie. But he was so focused on what he wanted, he missed what he needed. When I looked at this story before, I thought, what he needs is to realize that pursuing Mattie is against his moral code. On rereading it for this episode, I see it differently. What he needs is to shed his inertia and engage with life, however it shows up.
I realize this is a tricky line to walk because he is a character who has suffered severe trauma, and his circumstances are awful. That is real. He was born into a working class family, then dropped into poverty in a time when it was much easier to fall down than get back up. He didn’t have a lot of options. But his resignation about his life is something I find difficult to experience. Everything he does is in reaction to his environment. He chooses nothing proactively. It makes me want to get up and take immediate action.
If we compare this story to Ragtime, a Society Historical story, Coalhouse Walker never succumbed or became resigned to his circumstances. It just isn’t who he is. He’s a proactive character who accepts his circumstances (he is a realist), but doesn’t let them dictate his attitude or choices. He chose death over having his agency taken from him, and through his active resistance, he inspired others. So he didn’t get what he wanted; he got what he needed. It’s a prescriptive tale, even though it’s a tragedy.
Ethan Frome, on the other hand got what he thought he wanted, but in getting it, found it hollow, and in the process, as I said, he completely missed what he needed.
One final note about the narrative device. Ethan Frome is a great example of a story that has a covert narrator (the unnamed narrator who wants to understand Ethan Frome), but in the main part of the narrative he disappears, and we get a selective omniscient telling from Frome’s point of view. It’s a great way to get the best of both options.
Valerie: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this scene drives home the importance of reading widely and deeply. So many writers resist reading the classics, or any novel from a different age. But there are lessons to be learned from the writers who have gone before us. Suzanne Collins used this same kind of suicide pact scene and it worked wonders! Shawn has called it the “ancestral internet” – we can plug in to the lessons that the storytellers who have come before us, have left for us.
Leslie: Comparing the core events of different stories in the same genre is an extremely useful exercise. When you see them side by side, you can see the decisions each writer made and ask, why might they have chosen to do this? Studying these choices will help us make better ones for our own stories.