Writing 201: Setting the Scene

In this final week of Writing 201, we take a step back to look at the big picture: how do we transform a meaningful moment into a scene that can anchor an entire post?

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We’ve spent the first three weeks of Writing 201 zooming in. Whether it was to find your own original angle on a story, craft a hook your readers will find irresistible, or identify the key moment of your story, we sought to achieve greater focus through a process of elimination and narrowing down of options. You will do this — this stripping off of dead (written) weight — again and again (and again) as you write more.

But every once in a while there will also be moments to expand and to build on your findings. This final week of Writing 201 is one of those opportunities. Now that you’ve put your finger on your key moment, it’s time to craft a scene around it, and to give some serious thought to how you’d maximize its effect on the piece as a whole.

Working behind the scenes, stagehands are preparing a theater set. Image by Paul Lim (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Building a scene, plank by plank

Note: Scene-building isn’t a step restricted to fiction. A lot of the best memoir, essays, and journalism are narratives rich with scenes. These tips apply to all genres.

Last week, Cheri encouraged you to think about your key moment cinematically: what are the key narrative elements that keep your plot moving forward? Now that we’re moving into the next step — fleshing out a scene — let’s also switch metaphors (and art forms), and move into the realm of theater.

Laurie Hertzel at Nieman Storyboard on scenes: “You want the reader to feel like he’s right there with you. Scenes are all about action and movement and tension and detail. They should unfold moment by moment.”

This is no arbitrary choice: “scene” derives from the Latin word for stage. Even if you’d never consider the story you’re telling dramatic enough for rousing soliloquies and exaggerated hand gestures, the basics of scene-building are the same even if the scene in question will only ever come to life on your readers’ computer screen. To get going, let’s consider some of the key elements of any scene. We’ll talk more about these later on, too.

  • Character(s). At the heart of every scene is a human drama, however minor. Human drama requires a minimum of one person, preferably someone your readers care about.
  • Setting. A stage is always a representation of somewhere, a specific set of spatial features, of openings and obstacles. Where that place is is up to you, but it’s your job to make sure your characters are rooted in space — or you risk making your readers feel like they’re floating through it.
  • Action. Something always happens in a scene — some discrete unit of narrative energy must be spent. It doesn’t matter if a president gets sworn in or a panhandler decides to cross the road, but the world can never be the same by the end of the scene.
  • Duration. In classical theater, a scene started when a character either entered or left the stage, and ended the exact same way. You obviously don’t have to follow such rigid guidelines, but the idea is that your readers should know when your scene has started and ended (it should also never overstay its welcome).

Scenes — entering late, leaving early: “Beginners almost always begin their scenes earlier than they should and then carry them on longer than they should,” says Charles Deemer. You don’t have to explain everything. Try this tip from The Story Bodyguard: Write your entire scene. Then go back and find the very first action or sentence that absolutely cannot be left out to begin. Do the same with the end of the scene.

Let’s make this more concrete and imagine that after last week’s assignment, a blogger named Jesse found his key moment. His post was about leaving New York, where he’d hoped to become a professional travel writer, and deciding to move back to his hometown, where lower living costs would allow him to actually do more traveling and writing. He wasn’t sure how to tell a story of broken dreams without sounding clichéd and overdramatic. He also didn’t know how to convey his complicated feelings about the decision, since they contain both disappointment and optimism.

Then, after going over his draft a few times, he decided to zone in on an event that, he now realized, encapsulated the stakes of his decision. On a previous trip to Mexico, a power outage had prevented him from charging his laptop, and he couldn’t write for an entire day. But that night, in a candlelit bar, he ended up having a heart-to-heart conversation with the old proprietor, Antonio, who told him about his childhood in a poor household in a village far away. Obstacles, tradeoffs, unexpected twists, the tension between acceptance and perseverance — it was all there. Now what?

Designing the house around the safe

In week two, Michelle went over some of the elements that make a powerful opening and an irresistible hook. Building a scene happens in a similar fashion, only on a larger scale. Instead of the level of the sentence, we’re working with a sequence of longer duration (this isn’t to say, of course, that sentences are no longer important — they never stop being the most basic building block of your narrative). Consider, once again, novelist Amy Tan on details:

I try to see as much as possible — in microscopic detail. I have an exercise that helps me with this, using old family photographs. I’ll blow an image up as much as I can, and work through it pixel by pixel. This isn’t the way we typically look at pictures — where we take in the whole gestalt, eyes focusing mostly on the central image. I’ll start at, say, a corner, looking at every detail. And the strangest things happen: you end up noticing things you never would have noticed.

This process of gradual zooming out works beyond descriptions alone — you can apply it to the overall structure of your piece. The goal is to immerse your readers in the experience you’re recounting, leading them all the way to the scene’s climax and conclusion. It may sound counterintuitive, but you want to think about that end-point first.

The end-point of your story: “In some stories, the climax will involve a drawn-out physical battle. In others, the climax can be nothing more than a simple admission that changes everything for the protagonist. Almost always, it is a moment of revelation for the main character.” Read more about the climax of a scene on Helping Writers Become Authors. The discussion focuses on longer narratives like books, but the ideas and examples might provide inspiration.

Whether it’s a major (or minor) epiphany, a decision made, a secret revealed, or an emotion transformed, you’ll want to tune whatever’s leading to that moment so that it’s in the right key. The moment is your treasure chest, the safe containing your most prized possessions. Build your house — your scene — around it. In Jesse’s story, it’s his conversation with the old bartender that drives home the idea that dreams change, that compromises don’t always mean defeat, and that in real life it’s difficult to know when to change course and when to stick with original plans. In order to convey these complex notions successfully, this scene would require a few necessary ingredients:

  • The setting needs to be vivid: the reader should feel like she’s sitting there with Jesse in the same bar in Mexico.
  • The character of Antonio, the old bartender, should be convincing — we want to be able to hear his voice, and to understand why his presence was meaningful.
  • Jesse’s own reflections on the story he’s recounting will probably have to be part of the scene itself, but placed there carefully. He’ll want to avoid a heavy-handed “eureka!” moment.
Like the choreography of a dance, your scene is composed of discrete details brought together into meaningful sequence.

Like the choreography of a dance, your scene is composed of discrete details brought together into a meaningful sequence. Image by Design Trust for Public Space (CC BY 2.0)

Writing with a spoon in your hand

In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard for Jesse to recreate such a scene and report on its effect: he could write down every single thing he can remember from it, and spell out each and every emotion he experienced as it was unfolding. The problem? This is like watching the unedited video footage of a wedding: painfully tedious to anyone subjected to it (including the happy couple, one would think).

The challenge is, first, to choose the right details, and, second, to present them — to narrate them — in the right way. This is where the inevitable Show vs. Tell dilemma rears its head. Err too much on the side of direct exposition (“Jesse was really frustrated he couldn’t use his laptop that night”) and your story becomes a flat, monotone dictation. Go too far in the direction of flowery paraphrases (“Jesse’s eyes twitched, a few droplets of sweat rolled down his forehead. His laptop lay languid on the desk, a metal box of endlessly unavailable possibilities”), and your reader will get very tired, very quickly.

A description gives the reader a moment to reflect, to feel, to intuit. It’s like a pause in the forward momentum of a piece. — Mary Jaksch, How to Show (Not Tell)

There is, of course, real value to not always spelling things out — obscurity, even in minimal doses, even on the level of language, creates tension, and tension drives writing — and reading — forward. In other words, that worn adage of writing workshops, “Show, don’t tell,” still has its value. Sometimes, though, you really, really just want to tell it like it is. It could be because you’re running out of space, or your pace has ground to a near halt. It could be because sometimes, simple, straightforward statements are elegant and beautiful in their own right. And it could be because sometimes variation is worth it just for its own sake. Here’s novelist Joshua Henkin’s refreshing take on the show-don’t-tell dilemma:

If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.

Showing vs. Telling — The Camera Test: Faced with a passage you’re not sure about? In The First 50 Pages, author Jeff Gerke suggests asking one question to help identify writing that tells rather than shows: Can the camera see it? Read what you’ve written, and then see if it passes this camera test. If it doesn’t, perhaps your description needs a bit more fleshing out.

How do you know how much to show, how much to tell, and whether a sentence is actually telling or showing something? For the most part, you don’t. You write. You read. You add a bit here, remove a few words there, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. This is writing with a spoon in your hand — you keep tasting, keep correcting, and keep adjusting. At some point — you might be satisfied at last, or you might just be exhausted — you stop.

To follow up on Jesse’s story, he might start with a brief description of the candlelit room in Mexico, jump to an analysis of his thoughts about perseverance, and then conclude with a powerful snippet of dialog between him and Antonio. He finds this structure creates a conclusion that’s too vague, so he switches stuff around — now it’s the dialog that he opens with, which then zooms out into a description of the bar and the events that led him there, ending with his own reflections.

How about adding another, final morsel of dialog right at the end? Or, rather, drawing the curtain on the scene with a moving evocation of the dark, shadow-filled room? There’s no real way to know any of this without having an end-point to work toward, and without actually writing (and rewriting) it.

On good days, writers might pull off a scene with minimal tweaking, but one can’t count on it. It may sound annoying, but it’s in fact a blessing in disguise: unlike on a real stage, with real actors, here you get to reenact the scene as many times as you wish.

A question of place

There really isn’t a sure way of knowing in advance where the ideal spot for a scene might be.

Just like the structure of the scene itself, how and where to place it in the overall architecture of your post is also a matter of experimentation. Last week, Cheri mentioned some of the considerations to keep in mind: are you following a chronological order? Are you basing your post on a series of flashbacks interspersed with present-day reflections? Have you created a poetic mishmash of moments that transcends traditional ideas of temporality? There really isn’t a sure way of knowing in advance where the ideal spot for a scene might be.

Consider how different Jesse’s scene would feel in different junctures of his narrative. He could start with it, sending the heavy guns first, using his key moment as his hook. His readers would be engaged from the get-go, and he’d quickly establish the tone of his post. Later on, he could refer back to it if he wanted, and use it as a recurring narrative unit to give the piece as a whole a stronger sense of cohesion.

The opposite direction is an equally valid option. Ending on a powerful note will have a major effect on how readers remember the post and what they think of your writing. If the moment you depicted there really conveys the emotion you were aiming for, you will have great control over the overall timbre of the piece.

Or, consider the option of placing your key scene about two thirds of the way into your post, a spot that’s often ideal for a narrative climax. It gives you enough time to build up tension and make your reader know what the story’s all about, but still allows for a calm, reflective ending.

Read like an editor: when you play around with the position of your scene, be sure to re-read the post in its entirety.

If this sounds like too many options, don’t worry — more often than not, a given post will only have a couple of moments that really make sense for your scene. One thing to keep in mind: when you play around with the position of your scene, be sure to re-read the post in its entirety. It’s impossible to assess a section’s effect in a vacuum, and thinking about this one scene will help you with giving the entire post a clearer focus and better-defined contours.

10 minutes to curtain! Image by Joe deSousa (CC BY 2.0)

Digging in: final notes

What’s next? We don’t want to end this four-week course without giving you some concrete next steps. While scene-building could fill up an entire course on its own, here are some leading questions that will help you in gathering the materials you need for a scene that works (if you’d like general advice on description and storytelling, this piece is a nice place to start).

  • Setting: Where are we? In what city, village, or other community is this story taking place? Are we indoors or outdoors? What season are we in? How’s the weather? What kind of light does this place have? What are the three most notable features of this space? Are there any objects that immediately draw the attention of anyone there? If you’d like even more guidance, try this helpful article which contains twelve elements that will help you construct a convincing setting.
  • Character(s): Who’s in this scene? How many people are there, and which of them matter the most for what takes place? For those characters that play a vital role in your scene, how do they look? What are they wearing? How do they talk? Do they have any trademark gestures or tics? What mood are they in?
  • Action: What happened to these characters just before this specific scene began to unfold? What do the people in it want? Why are they there? How do they move in space while this scene plays out? If the action you narrate is conversation-based, what’s the tone of the conversation? If you’re describing non-verbal events, break them down into their smallest particles — how does each one affect what comes next? At the end of the scene, what is different compared to when it started? How long — in real time — did it take for all of this to happen?

Once you’re in possession of at least some of these basic tidbits, the real fun begins. It’s now time once again to zoom in, select what works, and discard what doesn’t. Then repeat. And repeat. As you probably realize by now, the process behind good storytelling constantly fluctuates between this expansive, maximalist mode, and moments of cutting down, of simmering and concentrating. Just like us, a narrative breathes: it inhales, exhales, and, occasionally, coughs and sneezes. The one thing that matters, in our bodies as in our writing, is not to stop.

Head over to the Commons to share what you’re working on this week. Not sure how to start your scene? Don’t know what elements you need to include? Thinking about where to place your scene within your post? Your fellow writers might be able to help.

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  1. I have been learning so much, my mojo thanks you so much for the great motivation! Very precious insights I can’t wait to put into practice.


  2. I know just the perfect post to rewrite for this. So glad I took this course! Thank you happiness team and all bloggers in The Commons who have been so helpful.


  3. Hey! I know this is sort of off-topic but I needed to ask.
    Does building a well-established blog such as yours require a lot of work?

    I’m brand new to operating a blog however I do write in my diary every
    day. I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online.
    Please let me know if you have any ideas
    or tips for brand new aspiring blog owners.