Lights, Action, Camera
Good scenes are important in fiction because this is where a story comes alive. When a scene is well-written, the reader can hear the characters speaking and see the surroundings as clearly as if he were there. Even more, the reader can share the point-of-view character’s thoughts and feelings, knowing exactly what’s going on in that character’s head and heart. In a process known as identification, the reader feels as if he has stepped into the role to experience the scene events first hand. It’s powerful stuff.
We’ve previously discussed different types of scenes, and we’ve looked at the importance of two key elements: conflict and change. Today, let’s move on to what I call setting the stage for our scenes.
It’s a simple process. We provide the reader with a few basic facts about where the scene is taking place, when it’s happening, and who’s involved. We make sure, too, that our reader understands why things are happening and how the POV character hopes to accomplish his or her goal. Remember, we don’t always have to state these things directly. Sometimes a goal or course of action can be implied.
For instance, if we show a young woman in the kitchen stirring a pot on the stove, a reader can guess that she’s making dinner. If a young man steps out of the door early one morning dressed in a business suit and tie, a reader will most likely understand that he’s heading off to work. This is how that idea of “show, don’t tell” comes into play.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re still stage-setting. Our characters aren’t ready to act quite yet.
If you were on a film set watching a director at work, one of the first instructions you’d hear would be, “Places, everybody!” Filming can’t begin until the actors are where they’re supposed to be. In a similar way, we can’t set our scenes in motion until we know — and the reader knows, too — what characters are present and where they are.
Maybe you’ve read a poorly-written scene where two characters are talking and suddenly from out of nowhere a third character speaks up. Wait! Where did she come from? Unless she’s been hiding in the shadows and her sudden appearance is intended to be a surprise, the reader is going to be mighty confused. Why didn’t the writer mention the third person?
If we’re watching a play, a film, or a television show, we can see for ourselves who’s present in the scene. When we’re reading, we can’t. It’s a simple as that, so make sure your readers know who is there. It’s good, too, to provide a bit of information about where each character is. Maybe Ashley is standing at the window looking out, while her aunt and sister are seated on a couch. Maybe the scene begins with Tom and his wife in bed. Help the reader visualize the scene set-up by quickly showing who’s there and where they are. Let the reader know, too, if it’s early morning or late at night. A few words is all it takes.
Note: When you re-read your work, always check for consistency in character locations. If Ashley is standing at the window, make sure you don’t later write that “Ashley got up from the chair and crossed the room.” Little slip-ups like this do happen when we’re writing. It’s our job to catch them — and correct them — before we send a story out into the world.
Scenes aren’t static, of course, and characters will move around. You don’t have to include every slight movement a character makes over the course of a scene, but do show important changes of location. Going back to Ashley standing at the window, as the scene progresses we might show this:
Ashley let the curtains fall back into place. “I can’t believe you’d suggest such a thing,” she said, turning now to face her aunt and sister. “That plan will never work, and I’ll prove it.” With quick steps, she crossed the room, opened the drawer of the desk, and pulled out a leather-bound book.
Can you visualize Ashley’s movements? Probably so. But let me add another little detail to this tiny bit of the scene. It has to do with Ashley letting those curtains fall back into place. You see, I placed her at the window to help me illustrate a key element of stage-setting. It’s the director’s next command.
Everything we see is because of light. We see objects, we see colors. All because of light. Light, of course, is also used for creating mood — in life and in fiction. Want romance? Light candles. Want to create a somber mood? Make the setting dark and depressing. Want to play up the character’s bright spirits? Set the scene in a sunny location.
We’ve all heard the jokes about it being a dark and stormy night, and there’s nothing wrong with dark, stormy nights. We just need to show them, not tell the reader about them. Start the scene with a crash of thunder. Show lightning streaking through the dark skies. Your readers will be right there with you, ready for a frightening tale.
But back to Ashley. If I were to write a complete scene here, I would have most likely mentioned the late afternoon sunlight streaming into the room as Ashley stands at the window staring out. So, when she drops the curtain back into place, the lighting changes. The mood might change a bit, too. It’s worth mentioning:
Ashley let the curtains fall back into place, shutting out the last rays of sunlight. “I can’t believe you’d suggest such a thing,” she said, turning now to face her aunt and sister through the deepening shadows. “That plan will never work, and I’ll prove it.” With quick steps, she crossed the room, opened the drawer of the desk, and pulled out a leather-bound book.
Now can you not only visualize Ashley’s movements but also sense a bit of atmosphere? I hope so. Lighting is a key element in a strong scene, so use it to its full advantage, keeping in mind its physical importance and also its symbolic potential. While we don’t have to point everything out to readers, at times we might want to add emotional notes to our scenes. I could rewrite this little scene bit to include some of Ashley’s thoughts and feelings:
Ashley let the curtains fall back into place, shutting out the last rays of sunlight. Her hopes were fading away. “I can’t believe you’d suggest such a thing,” she said, turning now to face her aunt and sister through the deepening shadows. Time was running out. She had to act now, before it was too late. “That plan will never work, and I’ll prove it.” With quick steps, she crossed the room, opened the drawer of the desk, and pulled out a leather-bound book.
My hope now is that you can visualize Ashley’s movements, gain a sense of the atmosphere surrounding this scene, and begin to feel a little of Ashley’s emotional state.
Keep in mind, the short passage above is not the opening of the scene, but a brief bit showing some of the changes taking place within the scene. Even though these are minor changes, they’re important to show. They also give a suggestion of the conflicts brewing.
So, good scenes, as we know, have change and conflict — on many levels — and they also have characters on the stage, ready to play their roles. We build the scene by showing their movements, sharing their words, and adding in emotions our readers will feel, too.
Very briefly, let me go back to what I mentioned earlier about a third character hiding in the shadows. Yes, if a character is hiding from view, that’s all right. We can surprise the reader at the same time our POV character is surprised. That’s legitimate. And it’s done by means of lighting. Showing the lights and shadows of a scene will add a new dimension to your writing.
There’s much more that could be said on these points, but for now, it’s enough to be aware of these key elements and how they work. Here’s a quick “pre-scene” checklist you might find useful. You’ll recognize part of it from our last scene-making discussion.
- Who is the point of view character in this scene?
- What does this character want?
- What’s going to change and create conflict during this scene?
- How will the character respond to the changes?
- Where is this scene taking place?
- When is it happening?
- What other characters are present?
- Where are the characters located?
- Do the characters move around during the scene?
- What is the lighting?
One additional note before we move on. Although it doesn’t have to be included as part of every scene you write, be sure you’ve told the reader what time of year the events are taking place. Soon after your story begins, let the reader know if it’s winter, springtime or summer, or if a crisp, cool autumn breeze is blowing. You’ll want to occasionally mention this information in scenes to remind the reader. Just as lighting affects us emotionally, the time of year can also influence our thoughts and feelings.
COMING SOON: More on Motivation – The HOW and WHY Behind a Scene