Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Scene Writing Series, Part V - Setting, Part III - Detail

By Jax Hunter

Greetings Campers,

This month we’re going to take a look at how we can infuse our writing with details. The devil, and the scene, is in the details. First, we’ll take a look at the topic from a movie perspective, then we’ll broaden it for our purposes.

Obviously, movies are, for the most part, visual. Therefore, the screenwriter must use visuals more exclusively than novelists. But if we can “visualize” our scenes, we’ll be better able to put in the telling details that make our story come alive.

For a moment, let’s do a quick overview of cinematography.

There are four elements of visual content, according to Paul Lucey: Lighting, movement, color and space. These are all tools we can use in each scene. 

We can turn on only one single lamp in a room and let our character struggle to see. We can take him down either a darkened or fully lit hallway, each carrying with it its own mood.

We keep our camera stationary and view a scene with a wider lens or we can move our camera along with our character, watching his footsteps as he moves through a room. 

We can use pastels to convey soft, feminine moods or rich mahogany to imply wealth. 

To show space, the film industry most often uses a stationary camera and a medium angle lens. This shot gives the most realistic view of life. When we write scenes, we can use this same view or we can change it up, panning from left to right, or watching from a distance with a telephoto shot.

Within films, there are three prime camera angles: the close-up, the medium shot, and the long shot. Each has it’s own purpose in storytelling. The close-up is the shot of the character’s face, showing the emotion in his eyes, in his features. The medium and long shots are less able to show the fine emotion, but can still show bigger emotion, like kicking the dog. Usually as we start a scene, we’ll want to start with the long shot and move in as we go until we see the close-in emotion. However, for contrast, it might be powerful to start close-in and move out. 

One challenge that is common with both film makers and novelists is how to enrich the talking scenes with interesting sensual (five senses, not erotic) material to keep from talking-head scenes.

A way to do this is to cut the dialogue altogether and show what was going to be told earlier. Let the characters demonstrate what was going to be chatted about. 

Here’s a great example from the movie Witness. Late in the film, Book is intending to leave the farm and return to the city. There could have been a scene in the kitchen between Rachel and Book in which he tells Rachel he’s leaving. Instead, there was a montage of shots in which Rachel watches Book getting ready to leave and lets her figure it out for herself. Instead of having the husband telling the wife that he’s leaving her, why not have her find his wedding ring on the dresser. 

Another way to enrich your dialogue scenes is with interesting settings. How much better is the talking scene in the midst of a busy airport than in the taxi to the airport. In an interesting setting, your POV character can notice things, noises can interrupt - you get the picture. It’s much more poignant when emotions are high and the waitress comes to take the order and the agony or ecstasy is delayed. 

Movie makers have specific techniques that they use to pump up visual content. There are a few that will translate fairly seamlessly to novels.

Grand Images - these are the big scenes, the panoramas. These shots set the mood and put the story in context. They can also be moments that affect the characters in a bigger way. They are the sweeping images of Amish country in Witness all the way to the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. 

Visual Metaphors - these details that tell much more than they tell, so to speak. They lend themselves to the subtext of the story. These are the details that show us that the woman is sexy in subtle ways by having her drag her hand through the water in the swimming pool, or with the music that’s playing in the background. These are details that are less about the way she dresses and the way her hair falls and more about little things she does or what she drives or where she lives. Begin noticing the subtleties in movies and you might be able to take that technique to your novel scenes.

Symbols - these are props that mean something to the character, or even goals that say more than what lies on the surface. A class ring, a music box, even a place can give us great insight into a character without “telling.” Having your character hunting for buried treasure might not be about the literal worth of the treasure, but more what the finding means in terms of freedom or status or even self-esteem. 

As you’re watching movies and television, watch for great segues - the ones that make you say “YES!”  Those are often examples of Continuity Visuals. The close up of the wagon wheel as the wagon train leaves town, closing the scene, to be followed by the wagon wheel again as it passes the new grave of the Smith baby. Though these might not be as easily dramatic in prose as they are on the screen, they are tools we can find ways to use.

Business - this term refers to the activities that the characters engage in during conversation. Rarely in real life do we actually stop what we’re doing to have a conversation. We communicate while we’re cooking dinner, or folding laundry or splitting wood. Even better is when the activity is actually connected to the story - either at the time or later. 

As Lucey was writing about setting, saying that there is far more to interest viewers outdoors than inside, that, through your scenes, you can sprinkle kids skating or people playing tennis, I was reminded of a scene from Proof of Life. In this scene, Meg Ryan has to give her husband’s boss some information that she’s hoping he will act on. This information could have been conveyed in the boss’s lush office, but it was delivered on the tennis courts where Meg finds the boss playing doubles. How much more that said about the boss than if the scene was done in an office or a car or even a restaurant. We authors need to look for settings that will do more than just host a scene, settings and props and clothing that will, even without the reader noticing, give our characters more depth.

There is so much to say on this topic that I could do another entire column on the use of specific, telling detail. I’d love to show you some of the scenes I’ve found that are so very well written. I’d love to rehash some of what Jonathan King had to say at the last conference. I may do some of those next month or I may move on. Regardless, please remember this: sensual awareness isn’t something that we do only when we write. We should be training ourselves to notice things - in real life, in books, in movies - things that we can later use when we sit down to craft a scene.

Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)

Jax (

(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)

About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.

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