Writing 101: Setting the Scene

A popular way that some people describe lack of scenic description in a story is “white room syndrome.” While I understand the analogy, I want to use my very limited theatre experience to offer a better way to give help for setting a scene.

Imagine, if you will, an empty stage.

An empty stage in a theatre, like this picture of the Globe Theatre in London, has no set. If you ever read Shakespeare plays (as opposed to actually watching them), you might come across dialogue like this:

SIWARD
What wood is this before us?
MENTEITH
The wood of Birnam.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Back in Shakespeare’s day, they didn’t have fancy sets aside from the upper level. As you can see, the only “set” here is very minimal, with no extra stuff on the stage. Depending on the scene, of course, they added things to this stage to help convey the scene in the best way possible. Some theaters use backdrops, for example.

So what does that all mean when it comes to writing? In theater, similar to a novel, most of the time the audience can fill in the blanks for themselves. You don’t have to describe every single detail of everything in the room. Instead, I always imagine the settings of my books as being played out on an empty stage.

If you’re the kind of writer who loves to describe a scene before the action occurs, point out what’s important. The characters can also acknowledge the scene in dialogue, but avoid having them just describe everything around them. Example:

OBERON
How long within this wood intend you stay?

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Other factors, such as weather, could also play a role in the scene, such as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which literally begins with a storm. And yes, the characters in the scene are talking about the storm in the dialogue, but it’s pretty minimal:

ANTONIO: Where is the master, boatswain?

Boatswain: Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your
cabins: you do assist the storm.


GONZALO: Nay, good, be patient.


Boatswain: When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin: silence! trouble us not.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The point is that when it comes to putting description into a scene, imagine a stage with enough props, furniture, and a backdrop that can convey just what is necessary. The first minute of this part from Singin in the Rain is a really good example:

Trust that the reader has enough imagination to create a picture in their minds. I don’t even have that vivid of an imagination myself, but whenever I read novels, I can usually imagine enough to create a movie in my head. So, in the words of Shakespeare, “Screw your courage to the sticking place” and get to writing!

Books I can recommend that do a great job at setting scenes:

  • Pride and Prejudice, especially when Jane Austen describes Pemberley.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer
  • Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  • Desperate Forest by Cece Louise

So You Think You Can Write-Part 5: Scenes

If you want your outline to be as specific as possible, break every chapter down scene by scene. Anne Lammott, author of Bird by Bird, describes her writing as a series of “short assignments,” using a one-inch picture frame as an example. “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” In another chapter, she compared writing the first draft to watching a Polaroid develop. I think both of these analogies work when applied to writing scenes.

A scene in a movie or TV series is usually pretty short or at least about as long as your average TED talk (15-20 minutes) at most. In a novel, scenes can be long or short, but they have to have a certain structure and purpose. I keep using movies as examples because movies have a solid structure.

One of my favorite books that helps me when I’m writing is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s a book that is targeted to screenwriters, but it helps novelists as well. It integrates plot and character together, showing how all the elements in a good story (whether in a novel or a book) work together.

In this book, Truby describes how to structure a scene:

“The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.”

Truby’s book illustrates this by using the picture of an inverted triangle.

The widest part of the triangle represents the beginning of the scene, which starts out very broad. You can imagine this being an establishing shot in a movie. The narrowest part of the triangle is the end of a scene, which puts a great emphasis on an important word or line.

How does this particular scene structure work? Check out this example from Lessons from the Screenplay’s analysis of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Keep in mind that Gillian Flynn wrote the original book and then the screenplay for the movie adaptation. Never let it be said that we can’t learn anything from the movies.

When you outline or write out your scene, just ask yourself: “What is this whole scene about?” This will be the beginning of the scene. You can also ask “Where is this scene going to lead? What is the character supposed to choose or learn from in this scene?” This all factors into the beginning.

Then write out the scene. Push your character into a corner, to the point where he or she has to make a choice. The consequences of this choice will lead into the next scene. Ultimately, scenes are a matter of choices and consequences, cause and effect. Once you keep that in mind, your scenes will start to be more cohesive, even if you’re just writing the first draft.