101 Best Scenes Ever Written: A Romp Through Literature for Writers and Readers would perhaps be better titled How to Write a Great Scene: The Barnaby Conrad Way! The first title belongs to a fun book about books. The second, an infomercial. I’d pick up the first book; the second, no way. I would probably finish a book that actually is “a romp through literature for writers and readers.” This book, nope.
Each chapter of this book deals with a different kind of scene: beginnings, visual, action, romance, endings, etc. Conrad excerpts scenes from great literature and film and discusses how we can apply the techniques used in those scenes to our own writing. Now I have no particular aspirations to write fiction, so I wasn’t really interested in how to use these techniques. However, I do enjoy the “peeks behind the curtain” that books on writing sometimes provide, so I didn’t mind that this book had more how-to information than I expected. But was it necessary to put the (often very trite) tips in in boldface centered type?
Readers like details and specifics in their scenes!
“Stories aren’t written; they are rewritten!”
Every writer should keep notes!
And then the advice is presented in such absolute terms: “Readers like to read about people who are good at what they do no matter what that might be. Readers don’t like hapless losers as protagonists.” Really? Well, explain to me why so may chick-lit heroines are written as hapless losers (not that I’m defending this aspect of chick-lit, but some readers like reading about those hapless heroines). And then there are literary icons like Thomas Hardy, who made a career out of writing about hapless losers. These might be exceptions to a general rule, but Conrad writes as if there are no exceptions.
Okay, I could forgive the bad advice written in an annoying tone, since I’m not in this book for the advice but for the scenes. But then Conrad did the unforgivable—and he did it twice by page 70. He spoiled the endings! Now I would have the good sense to read cautiously in the chapter on endings, but I would expect to be safe from major spoilers in the chapters on War and Romance. Conrad gives away the ending of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a story whose brilliance rests almost entirely on the ending. In all fairness, he mentions the brilliance of the ending before giving it away, so wary readers would know to skip ahead. And I’ve read the story, so what do I care? But then, with no discernible warning, he gave away the ending of Noel Coward’s play Private Lives. I love Noel Coward and would love to see that play. And now it’s ruined! Ruined! This danger of plot spoiling is much, much greater than the rewards in this book. Abandoned!