Staging the Scene

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From Writer Unboxed:

I have always been a visual writer. When formulating a scene, I have to envision each moment in exacting detail. As such, a good deal of my editing process involves scaling back, sharpening key images and finding short cuts to capture the feel of a moment with fewer words. Even so, I strive not to strip away all of my cinematic leanings. For me the set pieces of a scene are often as vital as crafting dialog, advancing plot points, or even developing character. For this reason, I am drawn to novelists who paint engaging worlds, those with a talent for evoking not only a sweeping backdrop for their stories but also details to bring their imagined settings to life. I revel in imagining the furnishings of an imposing home at the center of a family drama, or visualizing the mountain forest above a protagonist’s homestead, or learning of the businesses that line the main street of a fictional community. Unsurprisingly, given my interest in such matters, I am similarly drawn to stories on film which do the same.

My latest obsession in the latter realm is the surprise Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, which has taken the world by storm. In a production environment increasingly reliant on overly complex, multi-dimensional storylines, producer Allan Scott and writer / director Scott Frank have released a straight-forward narrative, trusting that a single compelling through-line of a tale is all that is needed to hold the attention of a modern audience.

They were right! Beth Harmon, the young chess prodigy protagonist, captivates from the start. Her meteoric rise to the top echelon of the chess world while struggling with the demons of a traumatic childhood provides more than enough dramatic tension to propel the seven-episode arc to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But while many ingredients contribute to the show’s success, including top-notch acting from a talented cast, what stands out for me is the clear devotion given to ensure that each scene was stage-crafted to perfection, with every component – from lighting to color tone to camera movement – designed to reinforce the mood of the moment and underscore the emotional forces at work.

. . . .

I would argue that writers should absolutely evaluate their stories from a cinematic perspective. For while motion pictures are clearly a different format, the best written works are undeniably visual in nature. Indeed, the magic of writing is the intricate dance by which an author provides just enough imagery to allow a reader to flesh out an entire world, and then to place themselves in the midst of the described action. It is this alchemy which triggers an emotional response, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.

Thus, the question in my opinion is not whether a writer should strive to inject more stagecraft into their scenes, but how to do so. How does one elevate visual imagery within scenes in a meaningful way? And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel? 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

8 thoughts on “Staging the Scene”

  1. From the OP linked: “…And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel?…”

    The author does not mention this, but for me, the structure of the writing is important. Meaning: I like to write “cinematographically”. Focusing on the paragraph level, I think of each graph as a shot or edit in the movie that’s playing out in my head. And I have Ray Bradbury to thank for that.

  2. I have something of the opposite point of view. Too much description bogs the story down.

    Those of us who delight in world building (esp. SFF) would love to share every little bit of it, but no reader wants to read that. Instead, I have to concentrate on allusive words, a few bits that suggest a much larger and on-point context.

    You cannot compete with the pictures a reader constructs in his own head — all you can hope to do is to give him enough pieces to guide his attention in the way that you want: a bit of peeling red paint instead of a whole barn, a joke that illuminates cultural differences, a glimpsed object that sparks a memory, a smell that opens up emotional pain.

    The author needs to know the “actual” layout of buildings and relationships of physical objects, so that he does not contradict the mental “reality” that the reader has constructed for himself (“no, that’s not right… the library is on the 2nd floor, not the 1st”), since any such contradiction or carelessness can throw the reader out of the story (the worst of sins, in my opinion).

    But too much description feels like indulgence on the author’s part — “me, me, look at me and what I can imagine” instead of actual storytelling. Think how spare of description the traditional tales are. For example, from one of the Child ballads (#238 – Glenlogie): “He turned him round lightly, as the Gordons do all.” That little detail paints a whole picture, whether you see him in a kilt, or a cape, or in courtly robes. What more do you need? The man is not faceless in your mind, for all that he lacks a physical description. It’s certainly cinematic — but the writing of it is suggestive rather than explicit in terms of what you see.

    Trust your reader — you don’t need to hit him over the head with description to give him everything he needs to partner with you.

    • The only successful SFF author I’ve seen who gets away with massive infodumps is DAVID WEBER. And pretty much every review dings him for it. Aside from the extensive details of the physics behind his combat scenes, he routinely gifts even spear carriers with a name and physical description. And most recently he’s discovered unicode fonts so a whole lot of his newer characters bear names loaded with diacriticals.

      Then again, he’s enough of a name he can get away with it.
      But I suspect any newcomers (tradpub or indie) emulating him aren’t going to enjoy the reviews.

      When it comes to verbosity, a good starting point is probably “show me, don’t tell me”. Or at least use common cultural touchstones. Instead of a paragraph detailing the physicality of a character the same effect might be achieved by describing him as a former Marine Corps drill sergeant.

      Less can be more.

    • Like everything else in writing, I think setting the stage can be done well or poorly.

      In fiction I enjoy, setting the stage typically happens over a longer period of time. I pick up a piece of the setting here and another there, sometimes several pages apart.

      Setting the stage well doesn’t necessarily take a lot of words, either. Catcher in the Rye is one example that comes to mind.

      If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

  3. Thank you Karen. I couldn’t verbalize what was striking me as wrong in the OP – aside from a kneejerk “if I want a cinematic experience, I’ll watch a movie, but they’ve all gone boring”. Which is clearly not what the OP means.

    While I have noticed I often really like the works of writers who also paint (all two of them that I’m aware of Wurts & Dunnett), I don’t sit there reading and admiring the word painting, although other readers do. What matters is enough info to place the characters in space and placement so I don’t pull up a few sentences on saying: I thought she was sitting, how’d she pick up that chair to throw?

    And how about sound and scent and sensation? pushing visuals ignores all those other elements that increase the immersion into the world.

    • @ Elaine (in case this doesn’t nest properly)

      I like to go around collecting details about smells and sounds. I once asked a blogger if her Russian leather bag had any sort of a scent, because Russian leather is allegedly tanned with myrtle bark, and imparts an intriguing scent. Alas, she said the bag didn’t have an interesting smell after all.

      But you’re right that sometimes a scent or a sound will paint a stronger “picture” in a reader’s mind than a mere image will. An injured character stumbling through the wilderness at night will probably focus strongly on the growls and cries of jackals, and not on what the scenery looks like.

  4. Agreed. I was talking about this a little bit ago, with another writer. His description of a witch’s abode just read as a “catalogue of stuff,” and my eyes glazed over. I suggested that he get more evocative, so that instead of saying she had generic, nameless flowers in random colors, he narrow down the list with a specific type of flower that has lore or legends associated with it.

    As in not merely purple flowers, but wolf’s-bane, which his protagonist might connect to the wolf howls he hears at night. She doesn’t merely have generic mushrooms growing around the house, but a specific type, like the Destroying Angel if she’s evil. Or that red and white mushroom that fairies hang around, etc. Even if a reader has no idea what wolfsbane and Destroying Angel are, the names of the plants are suggestive, and could give a hint of the witch’s nature.

  5. I’ve now looked at the full OP and what he seems to have really been trying to say was build in resonances; give special attention to certain elements, add emotional heft to them and bring them back, don’t make them one-offs.

    I do not understand how, in the OP’s mind this translates into ‘cinematic’ except about the half th e post is about that. It just doesn’t make sense.

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