Book Talk Episode 6: Setting the Scene

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Whenever I begin planning out a scene in my novel, I like to think back to a course I took with one of my favourite professors back when I was in university.

In this course we focused on plays, and how different scenes were or could be set up for a performance. First we would read through the scene and get a basic overview of which characters were present. Then we would dig deeper, thinking about who actually spoke in the scene. Those who didn’t, we would try to figure out what they were or should be doing based on the dialogue (if no direction was given in the script), and what their reactions and thoughts were to the other characters around them.

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I often go back to what I learned in this course when I write, and yes I am aware that novelists and playwrights aren’t writing for the same purposes. That being that playwrights are creating something meant to be performed and novelists are creating something meant to be read, but nonetheless our duty is to bring these characters from the page and capture the audiences attention.

By planning out my scenes, keeping in mind all the players involved, it allowed me to focus in and set the correct mood. I keep in mind what each character is feeling in the scene, whether they are my main character’s or not. Their thoughts and emotions are important, because those will contribute to their reactions.

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For example, if person A and person B are having an argument–say they were lovers and person A kept a big secret from person B–you as the writer would know how these two characters are feeling. Now, what if this argument were in front of their friend, or their child, or even out in public among strangers? How does this change the scene, and the emotions and actions that not only the main characters are presenting, but the effect it has on the witnesses?

Perhaps person B is embarrassed and trying to keep their voice down, while person A is, in their fury, not even paying attention to what’s happening around them? Perhaps the witnesses are staring at them, or covering their ears, or trying to calm them down?

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Taking that course, and analyzing scenes this way, made me realize that there is more to setting a scene than the time, place and atmosphere. It emphasized the idea that each and every action has a reaction, and that those reactions are important to the storytelling regardless of who the reaction comes from.

I feel like keeping this in mind, can really enhance a scene for a writer. It also allows them to use different tools in their craft and play around with them. For instance, if I can, I like to show action within the dialogue.

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For example, instead of writing:

He hit him.

I could write:

“What the heck!? Did you…did you really just slap me?”

The reaction to being hit in the dialogue is (at least in my opinion), more impactful than simply writing, “He hit him.”

These are all things that you can consider while planning out your scenes. All in all, the main goal is to try and capture what you are visualizing, as well as possible, and put it onto the page.

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