Writing: Scene Choreography (1 of 3)
In the previous installment on scene construction we talked about the transferring of a basic scene idea onto the page. We discussed our toolbox of writing phenomena and the stepwise refinement of getting rolling on a scene. As we move to scene choreography, let’s discuss that word–‘choreography’. Most people will associate choreography with dancing. Dancing is essentially rhythmic movements or movements to music. For us as writers, choreographing a scene has multiple layers of meaning. It is the movement of characters, movement of the plot, and even the movement of narrative itself.
One thing you never want your narrative to be is static. You want it to move and you want your reader to be moved by it. As the creator, your story is little different than a stage production, you have the stage, the cast, the script and the audience. The differences lay in the particulars of how they all interact.
Unlike the limited stage of an earthly theatre the millieu of your novel or story has an unlimited scope, it can be anything you want constrained only by your ability to describe. That is the key here–‘ability to describe’. That’s where we’ll focus in this installment of scene construction.
If you look back to the ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ installment of scene construction, we went into detail of setting up a scene. Essentially, what we did was raise the curtain and describe to the audience what’s on stage. Our protagonist enters stage left and moves to where he will begin his interaction with the scene.
It’s no accident that he moves through the scene, it’s a deliberate part of the choreography to keep the visual from being a still painting. Strive for this in all of your setting descriptions, give something motion, whether it’s the trees swaying in the wind, the hawks gliding through the sky, or waves crashing on the shore… those simple details raise the level of narrative from being a portrait to being a movie.
Let’s look back again at the toolbox I mentioned in the first installment. We have:
- Visual lens (Wide angle, in frame, out of frame, close up)
- Cinematic sounds (dialogue, foreground, and background)
- Environmental queues (sensory textures, smells, and taste)
- Emotional queues (physical / mental status)
- Intellectual queues (contextual reference)
- Narrative queues and context (transitions)
If you examine the list, you will see the word ‘queues’ repeated several times. In movie terms, a cue (not queue) is a signal to start. In my list, the word ‘queues’ is specifically chosen. A queue is itself a list or line where things wait in order. I chose the word because it sounds like ‘cue’, which also has a connotation that I associate with these tools.
If you think about things happening in real life stuff happens simultaneously, you can be typing, listening to music, at the same time your spouse is puttering around in the room behind you.
Now, while this is an everyday part of our lives (things happening in parallel) writing and storytelling are inherently NOT parallel. Writing and events are serial (one after the other) in nature. First you describe one thing, then the next, and so on. Your story is a depiction of a movie rolling in your head. The actions and activity in that movie happen in parallel. So, the sticking point becomes you have to recreate that explicitly parallel movie in someone else’s head. Your task is to recreate that movement in a medium that is strictly linear.
Confused yet? Maybe you never thought about that disparity. Back to the queues thing. Because we have to do things in order (and a rational order at that) we can’t report everything going on at once. Let’s take item 3, the ‘environmental queues’. Note it’s ‘queues’ plural. You have a queue which handles the protagonists internalizing of the environment. Whether it’s hot or cold, the smells in the air, and so on. There are also implied external queues (how the environment is affecting other things outside the viewpoint character) those things have to be reported too.
Think of all the information that you need to report to the reader as stacking up in these big lines waiting to be presented. Those are the queues. You pick and choose the order in which they are presented.
Think of the director sitting in the chair at the edge of the stage: “Cue the sound!” The background sound happens. Then on ‘cue’ the actors start doing their thing.
Actually, when you get down to it, as a writer you’re more like a conductor, you have all these different instruments that play different parts of the song. With your baton you ‘cue’ those instruments to play.
So, now that we’ve sliced open the beast and looked at it’s innards, let’s forget about the mechanics of the task for a moment. As story tellers, hundreds of generations of evolution have given us an intuitive sense of how to break up our stories so that the parallel nature of the world comes through. This is mostly because story telling and story listening is a two ended process with an encoder (you) and a decoder (your audience). Your reader has that same evolution, and they will fill in the simultaneousness of the world as they read. There’s another word for this: imagination.
Now, while the reader can fill in a certain amount of the gaps with their evolved ‘story listening’ skills, how much they enjoy the story relies on how well you organize and present the images. That’s what we’re here in this article learning.
So we’ve talked about the queues that are the details of what’s happening in any given instant in your story. Know that because there’s simply too much information, that the contents of those queues at any given time get discarded as time and events move forward in to story. Like colored balls in a bunch of chutes you pluck the details out and place them on the track for the reader’s imagination to consume.
This leads to the inevitable question. How do you pick which details to give to the reader? The simple answer is three; any three. Like an amateur juggler, you can generally keep three balls in the air at any given time. For brief sprints, there might be more, but for the long haul the comfortable number is three.
So, three what? Three details, three sensations, three actions, and three contexts. Altogether there’s twelve balls there, you try to keep three of the twelve ‘in flight’ at any given time.
By now, all this theory about balls, queues, parallel and serial is probably giving you a headache. Let’s put it into to practice so we know what we’re talking about.
Okay, let’s take a look at narrative passage:
I picked this passage because it’s very ping-pong cause/effect. The story ‘I’ character is on a ski hill when confronted by this rather strange and aggressive naked woman climbing up the slope.
Consider the action in the scene. In paragraph one, he thinks ‘she followed me’. At that moment, the woman rushes forward on hands and feet. Multiple things are happening at that instant. She’s staring up at him and shuffling in the snow. She stands up and reaches for his face. Startled he pushes back, but she grabs him. He struggles to get loose, but she’s strong and pinches down so hard he stops resisting.
There are multiple threads moving through this. One thread is the woman’s purely physical actions of moving through the snow, standing up, grabbing his face, squeezing, and finally her dialogue. Intertwined with her actions in another thread are the protagonist’s actions, his flinch and attempt to backpedal out of range, his attempts to resist and subsequent capitulation due to pain. A third thing going on here are the mental/intellectual contexts of his observations serving as coordination between the different actions. Lastly, there are physical registers the ‘force of her fingers’, his grunts, and the pain.
Now, when you look at the composition, you can see how the elements are woven together to simulate stuff “happening”. There’s no space or time to report everything going on at that instant, all the purely academic but visual details, the snow blowing, the plumes of mist created by their breath, the feeling of cold, these are all balls, that for this telling, I opted to throw away. These are subjective decisions you must constantly make as you write the story, examining your queues for elements to include and report.
Okay, let’s continue from the same narrative and look at some action stuff.
So, the odd woman has captured the protagonist on the hill. There’s a brief exchange of dialogue, then he breaks away. Now, right there, the scene changes to a chase. So there’s a transition view: “The slope looked like rumpled white bedspread studded with rocks and trees.” Then we have a quick action sequence: “The woman screeched. I prayed. She grabbed. I plunged.” This is a staccato rhythm done for effect, action/reaction in quick succession. The short sentences, which go by quickly simulate on the page the speed with which the actions take place.
From this point the narrative continues to report things happening as the protagonist skis for his life down the hill, not only running away from the girl but trying to survive the obstacle of the hill itself. Like our first example actions, physical status, interior thoughts, and environmental cues, are all interweaved. It really is like juggling as you move the characters through the story keeping all the events happening instant-to-instant in a stream of consciousness.
So, now that we’ve looked at the raw mechanics, how do we plan out such a beast? The answer is not as simple as in our first installment of scene construction. To incorporate action (choreography) we still have to do the image transfer of the movie in our heads to the page. However, because this is action, we now have the additional complexity of having to worry about camera direction.
Camera direction? Yes. One of the key things a director worries about is the placement of the camera in a scene. This is especially important for action. For instance, a statically placed camera wouldn’t work too well for a car chase would it? In fact, in a car chase, the scene usually consists of ‘cuts’ where we see the characters, then pullback to the chasing vehicle, and then pull back to show both vehicles on the road.
You as the writer have to incorporate ‘cuts’ where the focus of the view shifts somewhat. Your main tool for cutting between cameras are transitions. When you first open a scene you are probably using a wide angle camera, and you paint the scene with open broad generalities. As you tighten the viewpoint, you move to more specific details. In our first installment we went from a smoky room, to things like jukeboxes and threadbare carpet. The shift from general to specific is in itself a kind of camera cut as you zoom in on particular bits.
When you first lay down the action sequence your best approach is just to list what happens in stepwise fashion. ‘A’ does ‘X’, B does ‘Y’, and so on. Make sure to list any specific reactions that affect the scene. For instance, ‘A’ slashes ‘B’ with a sword. ‘B’ yells, clutches his shoulder, and staggers back. In that simple notation I’ve made a micro scene. If you use action / reaction notation as your first pass it’s easy to get down on the page and then come back and fill in. This first pass is the stage direction. It’s your actors out of character moving around on the stage practicing the choreography prior to playing out the scene. If you’ve seen any of Jackie Chan’s outtakes, you realize that one of his action scenes takes dozens of hours of planning, and then sometimes dozens of attempts to simply get one move right. You, like Jackie, start with the basic idea of what you want to happen. As your actors work through the steps you build up and refine the nuances.
In writing, these nuances are things like physical registers, internal thoughts, and what causual interplay results from the action happening.
Let’s cut to an actual fight example: