I’ve been in a lot of writer critique groups. I love to get feedback on my latest scene. Sometimes, in my earlier days of writing, I was surprised by what other writers did or didn’t “get” in my submission. Funny, I thought I’d made it quite clear what my protagonist was doing, feeling, thinking. And the environment: I’d described that well, too, right?
Apparently not, sometimes. Because, if my readers didn’t see it, I didn’t do a good job of setting my “stage.”
Since then, I’ve critiqued other writers’ scenes. Sometimes I failed to connect with the characters and their emotions because some important aspect was missing.
With my background in theater I like to think of my novel’s scenes in terms of how it would appear on stage.
A good theater director leaves nothing out when setting the stage for a scene. After all, the magic of theater is in creating a sensory experience that will transport the audience to “another world.”
I’m not saying that you, the writer, should “tell.” Horrors! But some writers are so afraid of narrative that they shy away from describing the environment. Setting the stage is not necessarily the same thing as describing.
Think about the last time you attended a theatrical production, whether a play, an opera, a ballet, a musical, even a musical review.
A few years ago my husband and I saw “The Phantom of the Opera.” As we waited for the show to begin, I glanced up and saw an enormous chandelier hovering over the orchestra pit. On stage sat something big, entirely draped with a gray cloth.
Later, at the same moment that the gray cloth was whisked off that large object—revealing the organ—dramatic and creepy music that personifies the main character, the Phantom, filled the house. It made the audience exclaim, “Oooooooooh.”
The bare stage, the covered organ, the icily lit overhanging chandelier foreshadowed murderous events. The organ music described, without words, the sinister character of the Phantom.
Sound had been wired throughout the auditorium. At certain times during the performance, voices and whisperings of the actors could be heard so near that we started in our seats. “Smoke” permeated the theater. Sets moved, lighting adjusted, actors made costume changes. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music at times thrilled, then hinted at, then made us weep, or sink down in our seats. Characters moved on and off stage, climbed rickety wood steps, appeared in places most actors never deliver lines.
Yes, the lyrics and dialogue moved the story. But had the environment not “spoken,” the audience would have missed so much of the mood, and thus, the emotional experience.
Oh, if I’d had the money I would have gone again and again to see the show. I loved being startled, creeped out, moved, amazed, perplexed. (How in the world did the Phantom get away when he was tied to the chair?!!!)
In the coming weeks I’m going to present the theater behind a scene. What can we do as writers to create an emotional experience for our readers? I’m not going to discuss dialogue. Instead, we’ll explore the elements of effective stage-setting. How can we incorporate them into our scenes? We’ll think about sensory details: blocking, backdrops, props, sound, lights, music, temperature: the kind of elements we usually take for granted.
See you next Monday!