Sunday, October 23, 2011

More on Scene Design

I'm still obsessing about scene design, and I'm thinking the essence of keeping scenes dramatic might be knowing what's important to narrate and what can be summarized.

Here are some common scene-narration opportunities:

Many readers skim over even a paragraph which is just description. I think that's more in popular fiction than general and literary fiction, however. In pop fic, the setting might be best filtered through the POV character, or done in kind an omniscient opening to the scene (where it's conventional and won't bother many readers-- that's not always the best way to open a scene, of course, so do what's best for this scene, to accomplish your specific purpose).
Filtering through the character (more common in deeper and single POV) means presenting it as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character. If she thinks about how much everything in the room costs, we might think she's materialistic (if she's spot-on about the prices), or poor and envious.

In general fiction and literary fiction, the descriptive passages can reveal the author's voice and perspective. Make sure they do. That is, don't wimp out and have some generic description. (This was a wealthy collector's house. On the left was a Renoir nude. On the right was a Rembrandt self-portrait. On the floor was a Persian carpet. The furniture was Louis Quatorze.) Highlight your voice, your powers of description, your way of approaching setting.

Now many writers are erring on the other extreme and doing almost no description.
Careful there. Think about what the reader needs in the way of setting and character description, and when. Readers don't want to wait till the third page of the story to realize, "Oh, we're outside?" They're trying to put together an experience of this scene, and that does mean they need to know where they are and what it feels like. (Visual is not the only descriptor, by the way.)
So can you establish a few points in the first few paragraphs of the scene?
inside/outside (try doing this with "feel"-- like the wind)
Even the most distracted character would probably register that much.
Also, you can describe through interaction. If he has to push through a crowd to get up to his bleacher seat and he sits down and has to shift to fit his butt onto the metal bench, and he can feel the heat of the concrete floor through his sneakers and he has to put on his sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sun, and as he's eating his hot dog, he squirts mustard on his shirt and curses, and the guy next to him takes offense and shoves him and he goes sprawling over the plastic seatbacks, just as the batter 350 feet away hits a home run and it flies through the outfield and strikes Tommy right on the head... well, we're going to a good idea of the setting because the character is in constant interaction with the environment.

For awhile, I was narrating lots of MOTION. It would take a page to get the character across the street. ("He stepped off the curb. Then he moved his left foot forward on the hot pavement of the street. Then he moved his right foot forward. Then...") I don't need to tell you how excruciatingly boring that was to write (just imagine reading!). Wonder why I did it! Maybe just to get a sense of the physicality of the character, and that's good, but not when he ends up sounding like a robot. :)

So how much motion do you want to narrate? Not that much. Otherwise, it's probably moment-dependent. If the character is engaged in some intricate activity, like picking a lock, you might want to convey how complicated it is with a few lines (don't get to the boring point :) of close narration of what his hands are doing and what his ears hear and what his consciousness blocks out.

In an action passage, like where she's running from a malicious bulldozer, you might want to narrate closely her dash through the floodlit construction lot, her trip on a concrete block, her scramble through a hole in the chain-link fence. (Notice how quickly the setting is described when she's interacting with it.) At the same time, if you want the action to move fast, you don't want to slow it down with involved description of how she pulls the parts of the fence apart and latches each to the side, and ... Go for strong verbs-- she yanks the fencing aside and ignores the pain slashing through her hands and she scrambles through the hole and then she's free in the cold darkness of the highway underpass.

Again, in almost any scene, the reader needs some sense of movement, especially of the POV character. (I discuss this some in this post about action.) You don't want the reader stopping in mid-scene and thinking, "Huh? He's done with building the playground equipment? When did that happened? Last I heard, he was just unloading the tools from his truck!" If it's just "business," just what he's doing when he's thinking or talking, then you don't have to closely narrate, but you should narrate enough that the reader has some idea that he's halfway done, or close to done. Consider using the "business" to make action tags for thought or speech. I never should have let her go, he thought as he screwed in the last screw on the teeter-totter. He gave the plank an experimental shove, and one side came up and clanked him on the head. Just what he deserved for being so stupid.)

Give enough narration of action that the reader knows this character has a body that is doing something, and isn't suddenly pulled up short with, "Huh? I thought..."

But remember what your scene emphasis is here. If the action is central to the scene (like he's mercilessly beating up the bad guy), then narrate closely and keep the focus there. Tell the scene through/with the action. But if it's just "business," keep the focus on the conversation or thought or emotion or whatever you really think is important. Use the "business" as you would setting detail, to help anchor the scene and character in the environment and life. But the focus is still on the important aspect.



Michael G-G said...


T. said...

I love that you're still obsessing! (I don't write myself, but read a lot.) Lately, I've been thinking about long conversations - especially the ones that tend to come early in commercial fiction, like the 'call for action' kind of talk. Sometimes I guess it's not possible to move them out of a fairly static environment, like an office.

So I see a lot of writers adding completely irrelevant motion cues just to make it more action-oriented, like "let's talk about this murder and drink TEA". I understand why they do it, but do you (or any of the readers) think there are other types of solutions to speed up a talking heads scene?

David YB Kaufmann said...

Damon Knight, a fabled SF writer, discussed this years ago in a book on short story writing. I think Ursula K. LeGuin did as well in "Steering the Craft." It seems to me that "scene design" is closely related to plot, or perhaps better the plot-character interaction. In daily life, we rarely notice scene details consciously unless or until there's something unusual. If it's been raining for three days, we only note, oh, it's raining again. But if a blue sky suddenly darkens, we notice the nature and formation of the clouds, when and where we think it will rain, etc. That scene awareness precipitates action.

On the other hand, when the scene design is static, safe, familiar, secure, we focus on what we're doing or the relationship we're developing - who we're interacting with. Of course, the scene design will often determine or influence the nature of the conversation, which in turn forwards the plot. The shy boy is perhaps more likely to take a first step, physical or verbal, if he and the girl are sharing an umbrella because of the sudden rainstorm than if they are walking to class on a sunny day.

Nineteenth century authors often used scene design to set the stage, to create the mood aforehand. (I'm thinking of the scene where the eponymous Woman in White first appears.) This seems to me borrowed from the stage itself - the separation of stage description from dialogue.

In graphic forms - movies, TV, comics/graphic novels - the scene design is backgrounded into the final product. But the writers must still describe the scene visually for the artist, or the director must supply the peripheral and subconsciously perceived scene design.

Thanks for getting me thinking about this again.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Alicia, this is great advice about an aspect of writing that I've been gradually getting better at pulling off in my own work. Thanks!