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

The Play’s The Thing: How to Let Characters Drive the Story

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

-William Shakespeare

I have heard a lot of conflicting writing advice in my years. But one big conflict that I’m still having trouble getting over is the issue of plot versus character. In the past, I was very character-driven. However, in trying to fix myself, I have now leaned way too hard on plot and keep getting feedback about my characters feeling more like chess pieces.

So how the heck do you resolve this issue? When a character takes over the story, the plot basically becomes like a black hole, revolving all around them and dragging everything else along with it. When the plot is driving the story, the characters feel boring.

As William Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The play’s the thing.”

I used to do theater in high school and college. Even though I don’t have a lot of theater experience, I still learned a lot from memorizing monologues and acting out scenes in class. When you’re acting you (quoting Lizzie Bennet Diaries here) “open yourself up to inhabiting another person or letting another person inhabit you.” Actors put a lot of thought into embodying the character they play, no matter how small the role may be.

Emotion is really the driving force behind a good story. The reason why a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have worked is because there are always emotional stakes behind all the action scenes. We care for the characters. The same applies to My Hero Academia. It’s a series with a perfect balance of plot/action and character-driven moments and you slowly start to see the characters develop in between all the fights or even as the action is happening.

Basically, creating a novel is basically like putting on a one-man show where you play all the characters at once. No matter how crazy it may seem, every character you create is a part of you. Some characters will feel more like you than others, but every character comes from something inside you, even if it’s the worst part of you.

What does that all mean when it comes to plotting a story?

Plot is created by decisions the characters make and the consequences that result from those actions. You might have the characters react to things at first, but there needs to be a point where the characters take initiative.

How the heck can we figure out how to make sure our characters drive the story without getting lost?

Aside from taking an acting class, I recommend looking into musicals and studying Shakespeare plays. The most memorable musicals have character-driven moments that still move the plot along. I think of musicals like Hamilton, WickedThe Great Comet of 1812, and even the Heathers musical. Check out this essay as to why:

 

I hope that you take some time to get in touch with your inner actor.

Friday With a Friend!

Today, my friend Mariella Hunt. Catholic writer and editor, gives tips on how to better yourself through writing. 

In a recent edition of the Paris Review, there is an interview with author Emmanuel Carrere in which he mentions a writing exercise introduced by another author, Ludwig Borne.

The exercise goes as follows: Write for three successive days without restraint or hypocrisy. Write what comes to your mind, no matter what it is. Write what you’re feeling and keep going, keep on going, without interruption, just write.

By the end of this exercise, you will have started on the path to becoming an original writer, because you’ve written what was in your heart and not according to an outline or plan.

If you were to take up this challenge, what do you think would fill the pages of your journal? Would old monsters of your past read their heads up to devour you? Would you meet old friends or even a side of yourself you didn’t know existed?

At some point in the year 2014 I am going to try this exercise and see what my mind comes up with. I think it would be healthy for all writers to give this a shot. You might be surprised by what lies in your head forgotten over the years.

If you try it, good luck! You might write a best seller!

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Mariella Hunt is 20 years old and writes Young Adult Fiction. She blogs about her Catholic faith and fascination with art. Home is the Treasure Valley, but she dreams of seeing the world. Find her on Vimeo.

She is self-publishing her first novel, Dissonance, on 12/14/14.