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The first post that will be part of my “Something a Bit More Technical” series!

A long search is over

In a film script, a scene is something that happens, it’s defined by something happening in a specific place with certain things happening, much like a scene in a novel. And in a script it looks a  bit like this…

We see ERICA (21), looks like she could be related to one of the
Bronte sisters, carefree and fun attitude.
Books all around her as she hurriedly types,
three cats sleeping on the bed.

Something like that anyways. So, script writers have an easier time conveying what everything is set up to be (I’m keeping in mind that a script isn’t the final product here, there is then cameras and actors and filming to add to it). But I also think they have more of a challenge about how they tell a story, at least on paper. You need it to be dialogue and action driven without having too much exposition. I’ve written a few scripts. They took me forever, was kind of a painful process for me and I wasn’t happy with the end results. I’ll probably try it again in a few years and see what happens, until then I will stick with literary fiction.

As a novel writer, I try to keep that in mind while writing, but I also find I often skim over what the scene actually looks like and feels like. I’m kind of stuck in this middle ground between screenplay and novel, and though that marriage could be perfect, it is not working out for me now.

Here’s some adviceables on how to construct a scene.

1. Include an overabundance of everything that will add to the atmosphere. What do the chocolate chip cookies smell like? Do they smell a bit burnt with the sweet and buttery smell. What do they look like? Are they perfectly round or are they a bit misshapen? What do they remind the character of? What colour plate are they sitting on? How far are they from the character? What does the floor feel like beneath their feet, is it hot in there because the cookies have just come out of the oven and if so what season is it? Is it winter so the windows haven’t been opened and are fogging up, or is there a summer breeze coming in?  Have they been sitting there for a while now, left untouched and tempting?  Do this with everything, you can always take stuff out later when you’re editing. You may decide you really like the idea of it being winter, but it doesn’t really matter what colour the plate is.

2. Emotion is something that most of your characters probably have, and if they have alexithymia or are have trouble feeling a particular emotion, there are emotions that would come along with that. So, how is the character (or each individual character) feeling about this particular scene?  How do they feel about the way character A is looking at Character B? How do they feel about how Character C keeps glancing over at them in that way?

3. If you are writing a place or a time period that is in this world and either happening now or in the past, dig up all the information you can on it. If you are writing a story about historical figures, see if you can find documents that they wrote so you can get an idea of what their vocabulary was. Find old newspapers and see what the trending thing was or is. You can also use newpapers to find out what was going on in the city or town at that time? You could have it be a topic of conversation for your characters, or just have one of them make a comment about it.
See if you can find different descriptions of the place to help you build a vision of what it looks like, is it busy, are there horse carts or cars?

Again if you are writing about a real-world person, see if they have biographies or memoirs that you can read, see if you can find portraits of them so that you may accurately describe what they look like. If you are creating your own characters, find portraits that are similar to how your character would look, is their chin rounded or square? Do they have small eyelids?

Often I hear the complaint (and I have made it) that something has too much description and drones on and on, which may put us off from doing all of this and really digging into it, but I think the trick is to edit it down. You won’t need all the details in there, but isn’t it better to have tried them out and find that they didn’t work, instead of not trying them at all?

I know this all sounds like a lot of work, really it is a lot of work! But I have seen improvements in my scene building because of it.

I had some help on this post, as sadly I am not yet such a brilliant writer to come up with all this on my own. I’ve elaborated on what Adam Hochschild wrote for the “Telling True Stories” collection of essays put together by the Nieman Foundation.

Look for another “Something a bit More Technical” post next week!