Many years ago, I performed regularly in community theatre productions. I still recall the intense experience of standing backstage listening for my cue. Behind the flats, I was in the real world, but just barely. When my cue came, I stepped out into an imaginary world, transformed into whatever character I was playing. With one step, the words I was saying were no longer mine. They belonged to my character. I was immersed in a world no longer my own.
That’s the experience I want my readers to have when they read my narrative prose, the feeling of being a participant in the world I’m creating on the page. When I stood backstage during those community theatre productions, I was a spectator, but as soon as I made my entrance, I became my character who was, of course, actively involved in the play.
In prose narrative, the scene is the lifeblood of what John Gardner called “the fictive dream.” By that he meant the dreamworld the writer creates with words. We never want to give our readers a reason to leave that dreamworld. Any misstep can cause readers to disconnect from the narrative—a lack of specificity, any inaccuracy, any flaw in voice or tone, any underdevelopment, any hyperbole, any character inconsistency.
I’d like to offer some tips for scene-making, but first let’s consider the question of how we know when to write a scene instead of summarizing action or delving into a character’s interiority to let them think about something. The answer is simple. We write scenes when they dramatize some significant shift in the action and/or the characters’ relationships. We talk often about how a complete narrative leaves our main character changed at the end. The same is true for the individual scene. Our main characters enter scenes as particular kinds of people. Something that happens, either via action or word, alters them. We dramatize these shifts because we want to imprint them on our readers. We want to show the major shifts in the plot as well as the evolution of the characters. In our first drafts, we usually operate by instinct, scenically sketching out the major scenes of our narratives. In revision we have the chance to ask ourselves whether each scene is doing its work when it comes to the resonant development of the narrative. We can also ask whether we need to add any scenes.
When it comes to scenic depiction, there are four techniques we can use:
Action: Our characters should do something. It can be something big like climbing a mountain, or it can be something small like trying to cut a coupon off a box of crackers while talking about ending a marriage. Let your characters be more than just voices. Remember they have bodies. Put them to use.
Description: Actors use gestures, body language, and facial reactions to underscore the words they’re saying and to imbue them with emotions. The way a finger traces the rim of a glass, for instance, can express sensuality. It can also express hesitancy or contemplation. It’s only when we pair the description with the dialogue that we know what the actor/character is feeling. Don’t forget to use these descriptions to invite your readers into any exchange of dialogue.
Dialogue: The dialogue we use must be interesting. It must do more than merely transmit information. It can reveal additional layers of character. It can put pressure on characters. It can be ironic. It can do several important things particularly if the characters have opposed intentions, and/or if the subtext is revealing. By subtext, of course, I mean the thing that’s silently said along with what is said. “I love the way the brim of your hat shades your face,” for instance can really mean, “My god! I can barely bring myself to look at you.” What better way for a prose writer to study dialogue than to read plays. I particularly suggest those of Harold Pinter. Better yet why not try some acting yourself? Portraying a character on stage requires you to think about what your character is saying alongside what they’d really like to say. Acting asks you to think about the suppressed feelings characters carry with them, perhaps not even realizing they’re doing it.
Setting: Scenes occur in specific spaces, but it’s surprising how easy it is for writers to forget that fact. We must use the details of place to convince readers that what they’re reading really took place. Whether the scene is taking place inside or outside, we must rely on sensory details—those of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—to make the experience of reading our prose palpable.
When I was a little boy, my mother often said to me, “Oh, don’t make a scene.” Her message was clear. I wasn’t to draw attention to myself. As writers, we must draw attention to our characters and their stories. Nothing is more important than dramatization. With the techniques I’ve offered, feel free to make all the scenes you wish. Step onto the stage with your characters. Invite your readers to join you. Live in the world of your own making.