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When we discussed scene beginnings a few weeks ago, we said that each scene should have a purpose and an intention, and we mentioned setting the scene as part of the process of scene beginnings. This week we focus in more depth on scene setting.
Scene setting is about giving the reader visual cues of your character’s environment, and/or placing your character at a point in time.
Think of the theater. Scene setting is like setting the stage for a play. Staging for theater is the process of selecting, designing, or modifying the performance space for the actors. You are sitting in the audience. The curtain opens. You see a kitchen table and a knife block filled with knives. An actor is chopping onions and crying. The faucet is dripping with a sound like a ticking clock. Another actor comes in and the scene ends with one of them dead on the stage with a knife sticking out of their chest. The stage designer knows that the props must be visible to the audience before the action takes place, otherwise the audience could miss the clue, and miss the anticipation that the clue provides. The audience must be able to see the knife at the beginning of the scene because the prop will be used in the action, and is important to the state direction.
You are writing a scene where your character is investigating a murder. Your readers (your audience) need to be able to see all the props that will be used in the scene by your characters, as well as all the clues and necessary hints required of the plot.
Your character enters the room and sees a chair in the corner. It’s overturned.
The scent of lilacs wafts through the open window and a sunlight beam reveals a lone pearl on the carpet.
The clock on the mantel chimes three times.
There’s a letter opener on the floor. Mail is strewn across the floor in a line from the desk to the dead body.
From this information your readers can guess that it is 3 PM on a spring day, and that perhaps some information in the mail triggered the murder. You don’t have to tell them this information because you have shown it in your scene setting. Your readers can see the scene in their mind’s eye.
You use scene setting to provide clues to your reader of what the scene look like, smells like, tastes like. You use scene setting to establish a point in time. You use scene setting to provide your character a place to interact with their surroundings, and other characters. You use scene setting to establish mood.
Scene setting is your establishing shot of your movie that your reader is watching unfold as they read. Remember that the visuals are important. Show them your character sniffing the air and wrinkling their nose. Don’t tell them your character doesn’t like the stench of lilac.
Do be careful not to play mysterious and be vague with your reader. If you just say the murder weapon was on the floor, but you don’t show your reader what kind of murder weapon it was, you run the risk of confusing your reader later. Never confuse your reader. Remember if your reader can’t see where your character is or what important thing your character is seeing, your reader won’t be able to internalize your story.
When you consider scene setting always think of your reader. In the scene you are about to write, do they need a visual of the graphic location? Do they need to know the time? Are there cultural references that are important to the story? Do you need to place important objects in the scene? Should there be a salt shaker on the nightstand next to the bed? What about objects that establish the mood like lighting and color? What things are necessary to provide your reader a good visual and provide important information relating to the plot or characters? Those are things you should consider when you begin to set your scene.
Do also be careful not to provide an abundance of useless detail. If your character walks into a room and you describe the intricate wallpaper, and the wallpaper has no relevance to anything related to the plot, don’t describe the wallpaper. You will bog your reader down or worse. You will bore them. Sure. It’s pretty wallpaper, but unless your character has a penchant for paper don’t do it.
Next week: More scene goodies
We’ve been focused on scenes, the building blocks of novels, for the last few weeks. A scene is a three-part piece of your novel set in space and time, and should always have a purpose for being included in the novel. Scenes should move your story forward. Always.
Scene endings can allow your reader inhale if your scene has been particularly dynamic, or it can intrigue your reader and force them to turn the page if you have included some hook or dynamic plot twist. The scene ending is the perfect place for your character to summarize what is going on, and gives your reader a way of judging your character’s emotional state, and sum up the conflict. Do be careful not to over use the character summary aspect. It slows the pace of the novel.
You can also use your scene ending to create tension and drama by provide the reader an important revelation that twists the plot, or gives the reader a surprise. The cliffhanger ending is used because it makes certain that your reader can not know the outcome of the story, and so must keep reading. The cliffhanger leaves your character in peril and creates suspense.
Scene endings can also distance the reader from the events of the scene by providing a visual description, which simply pauses the story to visually show what is. Be sure to include all of your character’s senses. Drawing the reader away from the scene allows the reader to see something visually and can be a good way to end a scene, especially if the character has had much movement. It can help your reader to ground themselves in your character’s space and time.
Sometimes characters will wax philosophically at the end of a scene. This kind of scene ending works best for first person narrative, because the reader is much more inside the head of the character, and also if your novels is character driven rather than plot driven. If your character wouldn’t wax philosophically don’t force them to do this at the end of the scene, however. It will make your character’s behavior suspect to your reader.
Sometimes the ending is just an ending, and there is no need to do any of the above. This scene ending doesn’t need to summarize, or provide new information. It just needs to close the scene so the character or reader can move on. Use this idea to tie up any lose ends of your story. Make sure the scene ending feels final. Keep in mind that this does not mean that this scene ending is only for the conclusion of your novel. Sometimes it is for the end of a relationship, or some other thing which is completed. This scene ending shows your reader the finality of your character’s actions, thoughts, or feelings about a particular moment.
If you think about writing your scenes, each with a beginning, middle, and ending, and you think about what kind of beginning, middle, or ending you want to write based on the information you want to give to your reader, you will discover that your novel will have more of a sense of movement. Scenes help your characters move forward, and keep you, the author, from stagnating on the page by overusing prose. Scenes will keep you from getting sidetracked on things that don’t matter to your story.
Next time: More detail on setting the stage of your scenes…scene setting.
We’ve been focusing on scenes for the last few weeks. This week our focus is on scene middles. Each scene should have a purpose for being there. Each scene should move the story forward. Each scene should provide important information for the reader.
As a reminder, a scene is a small part of the continuous action of your novel and each scene is set in a specific moment in time, and in a specific location.
Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and an ending, and each of these scene parts has a purpose. Scene beginnings set the character in time and place, provide needed narrative and description, and provides your reader valuable information necessary to visualize your character in their mind’s eye.
Once you get past the first part of your scene, the scene beginning which set up your character, you then move to the second part of the scene where movement must happen on our pages. If your scene middle does not have any action, either physical or emotional, then there is a good chance that there really is no need for that particular scene in your novel. Remember that the purpose of the scene is to move your story forward. If there is no action, then you run the risk of boring your reader.
The scene middle is where you complicate your characters’ lives in order to build anticipation for your reader. Your character should never have it too easy. Make your character miserable, or make their life difficult. Think about what will increase the stakes for your characters. What does your character stand to lose? Show them losing it, or almost losing it. What does your character want? They can’t get it. What is your character’s motivation in this scene? There is something in their way. If you keep your character from achieving their goal you will increase the stakes for your character, and increase tension for your reader.
Can you add an element of physical or emotional danger? Putting your character in danger is a great way to increase the conflict of your story. You can also show your character reacting to the danger, which will provide information about your character to your reader. Or, put your character’s love interest or family member in danger. This danger ups the stakes in a different way. The risk of losing someone your character, and reader, loves can force your character to act in a different way, or take more risks with their own life. It is this kind of conflict created by putting your characters in danger that creates page turners.
Is there some unexpected discovery that will affect your character and surprise your reader? Revealing surprises in the middle of your scenes forces your characters to change direction, or change motivation, or start something completely new, either as a way to solve the puzzle of the new information, or to suppress information from reaching other characters. A new discovery could change your character’s fate for better or worse.
Your scene middles are the meat of your story and are the place to increase the stakes for your character. Scene middles get all the glory. Make sure the middle of each scene has movement and action.
Next time: Scene endings