Writing: Scene Construction: Lights, Camera, Action
Writing is considered a creative endeavor, but the biggest part of the process is simply transferring the images in your head into words. The creative parts of that activity are coming up with the source material (i.e. the world, the characters, and the situation) and the word choices used to portray the image envisioned.
When analyzing why people get stuck, most of the time it won’t be coming up with the images. On further examination, choosing how to say what needs to be said isn’t the sticking point. It’s the actual mechanics of transferring the image to the recording medium. Why does this give some writers problems? Because it is largely a left-brained or analytical process.
Now, some people are going to stomp their foot and insist that the whole process is creative. I will admit that for some people who have sublimated the transfer step, it is FOR THEM an entirely creative process.
For myself, when I envision a scene, I’m already writing the words in my head. In my head, the actual words describing the scene are there. I just punch them into the computer. I’m not really thinking about the arrangement, it’s a direct transcription. I would wager that there aren’t many people who write that way. I cannot assume everyone is a mutant like myself. I know how it USED to be for me, where I had a scene in my head and I went through the steps to make it into written description. That’s what I am going to take you through here, because I think this will pertain to a larger number of people.
I think the reason I see scenes in words rather than pictures is because in my idle time I am actually writing in my head, and that “pre-writing” analysis is already done when I sit down to compose a scene. When you become practiced at the pre-writing / pre-thinking it becomes more automatic and the transfer step is no longer the choke point gumming up your output of material.
As I lay out these steps for you, consider this statement:
All plot and characterization are based on cause and effect.
If you put everything in your story into this context, then your creative efforts have been reduced to one third. Why? Because in essence the only pre-thinking you must do is to set up the initial events, characters, and millieu the rest is like dominos set up in a line. As each tile tips, it hits the next that in turn topples the next and so on. This is called a causal chain or a chain reaction. Stories at their very core are chain reactions, a central catalyst occurs that creates a corresponding reaction that ripples outward to a particular result. Your story is usually a series of depictions that follow the ripples (changes).
Let me put forth a really simple scenario and I will show you analytical cause and effect in practice. Here are your givens:
- We have character named Matt. Matt is an angry young man with a hot temper who likes to fight.
- We have another character, Jane. Jane is married to our third character.
- Jack is our third player, he’s married to Jane. Jack really loves Jane and he’s more than willing to prove it.
Our situation is simple. Jack has just found out Matt is sleeping with Jane. In fact, at the local watering hole, Matt rather smugly admits he’s doing Jack’s wife.
What’s going to happen? It’s not real hard to speculate is it? There’s GOING to be harshness. Depending on the particulars, it’s likely going to result in punches being thrown. The creative part of this equation is in the particulars of the characters– is Jack the kind that yells or is he the kind that slugs. Further that variable, is Matt the kind that punches in response to yelling? More likely he is, in fact, trying to start a fight.
Transferring our scenario to our writing medium should be fairly straightforward from this point. After all, we know the players, the location, and what’s going to happen.
We can do it in a shorthand like this:
- Fade in at the local bar establishment, Matt is bellied up to bar and is a couple drinks in when Jack enters.
- Made beligerent by the alcohol, Matt decides to mess with Jack and greets the husband with some witty remark about knowing where Jane is.
- Not in the best of moods, Jack wants to know if its any of Matt’s business.
- Matt decides to stick it to Jack
- Jack reacts
What have we done here? We’ve broken the scene down into components. If that’s not analytical, I don’t know what is. It’s the process of breaking the scene up into smaller bites that makes it easier to approach in terms of actually writing it.
Now, note what I’ve given here are the key elements, the location, the characters, and the situation. We still have to write something that approaches a narrative. How do we go from that bird’s eye overview to the actual construction of the scene in our writing medium?
Again, I try to take as much “creativity” out of the writing process as possible, and save it for the crafting of the words in the scene itself.
For writing scenes I have my writing “toolbox” this toolbox consists of several virtual tools:
- 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)
Believe it or not, everything you do in a scene relates to one of those tools. Like a painter using a brush, the choice of tools affects the outcome of the painting.
This six-item laundry list will come in handy because really when we write the scene we will be choosing these tools like paint brushes. What’s important is that we want to use as many of these elements at possible. In fact, you could say it’s like a check list of items that need to be included.
Okay, back to our bar scene. The first most obvious tool we need is a visual lens. However, before we can do that, we need some sort of narrative queue that transitions us into the scene.
If we break this little intro down we can see some things that I take for granted, and will list for you here. When you intro, you should at least list who the viewpoint is, and where we are. The cake of this particular intro (the creative part) is I’ve worked in mood bits that hint at Jack’s emotional state. This is done with word choice. I don’t say Jack ‘came’ through the doors, I say he ‘slogged’. When he moves to his ‘usual spot’ he ‘trudges’, further setting up that he’s tired. I also throw in the fact of his ‘usual spot’ which implies he’s a regular at O’Henrys. The time, the double doors, and the ‘end of the bar’ are all quickie setting details.
As I’m transferring visuals to the recording medium, that’s where I’m putting my creative energy. I look at ways to sneak in the particulars of situation. You should too. By narrowing my creative focus down to coming up with clever ways to impart what I want, the task is minimized in my own viewpoint and therefore doesn’t seem too onerous or daunting. It’s when you convince yourself it’s hard or difficult that you get stuck.
Now that we have our transitory intro setting up the broad scene, I’m going to add more context to further set up Jack’s mental and emotional state.
Here I’m just piling on details about Jack’s state of mind. This passage serves a double purpose. It is also some fancied up exposition that summarizes and reminds the reader of what has come before.
Now that we’ve established Jack, we need some further visuals and sensory to fill in the scene at O’Henrys.
The next passage is kind of long, as describing the room and the significant details requires some space. Still, I approached it in step-wise fashion. I actually move Jack to the stool from which he will view the room. I don’t want the picture to be static so I draw attention to the old fans ‘churning’ the smoke. I also add some sensory information: smell, taste, and sound. Again here, I use my sense of creative style in the word choices and the details. The ‘watered down’ drinks, the cracked vinyl, and the threadbare carpet. You’ve probably been in a bar like this, and seen the people who hang out in them. Without too much fanfare I have set the scene and can move forward. This setting description is 160 words, a little less than a quarter of small print book page (or a tiny bit more than a third of a large print book). That’s a reasonable size for a setup to use as the foundation for a scene.
What I’d like to point out here, is that the scene I’ve drawn for you is hammer and tongs plugged out as I’m writing this article. I select the elements I want to include and then insert them into the passage in what is a purely analytical process. The creative part is the embellishments. What’s important to recognize is that because this article is for an audience and submitted to you in what will be its final form, I am polishing to a certain extent to show you the semi-final product. In your own writing, it might, and probably would, still be more raw. What I’m trying to communicate here is what FIRST gets laid down is just the raw elements, the smoke, the fans, the people, the jukebox and so on. Once they are in the material just thrown down, I start to organize and structure them to provide flow. That approach is critical. It’s when you try to THINK the organization and structure before laying the words down that usually clogs people up.
Description, especially a layered description like this, is done in stages and refined. You put down the rough form and then shove things into shape much the way you would clay. It’s during this process that you make word choices and refinements to the details you’re providing to the reader.
Usually a passage like this one takes three or four passes to perfect before moving on. So here’s the whole thing again in one lump:
It’s not bad for something we just threw together, right? It can be improved though. Truth be told, we can tinker with it forever, but let’s go through a refinement pass to demonstrate the kind of things we look at once we have the whole thing in place and can look at it as a whole.
The changes made here are subjective, whether it is actually improved is a matter of your taste. I moved the time into the second sentence and made the context a little more straight forward. I changed a word choice, replacing ‘worn’ with ‘creaky’ because it is more sensory. I took out the word ‘lethargic’ and the specific count of fans to compact that passage. I also changed the jukebox reference around to shift the emphasis.
These kinds of subjective choices are what descriptive refinements are about, and what give a scene its attitude and lustre. Don’t expect them to pop out of your head like this unless you’re a genius.
Given what we’ve just done we haven’t even gotten to the scene conflict, the staredown between Matt and Jack. However, one has to wonder, if you’ve gotten this far in creating the scene are you really going to have problems with the rest?
I find that people have to write the scene and just stare at a blank page and go no-where. If you got the setup down, you’re already rolling.
This article is about scene construction and the thought process behind transferring what’s in your head to what you see on the page. Hopefully we’ve accomplished that.
In other installments of scene construction we’ll discuss introducing movement and action, integrating choreography and character interaction.