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Drop In Your Backdrop

Staging Your Scene, part 3 (Scenery)

Now that you’ve diagrammed your “stage” and have a very clear picture of how your characters enter, move around, sit, stand, exit, etc., it’s time to paintIMG_1866 your scenery.

Bring up a mental image of some favorite TV program with a habitual setting. I like to picture the old sit-com, Everybody Loves Raymond. Most of the scenes take place in the living room. The set design says a lot about the Ray and Deborah Barone family. The living room is typical of a middle class home with ordinary furniture, decorations, lamps, pictures. We note that Deborah, although an excellent mom, doesn’t have much time to organize the house since there are always toys and kids’ stuff piled up against the back wall and next to the staircase. She must be a busy lady.

On stage left is the main entrance/exit: the front door. That is a very important part of the set. It isn’t hidden behind a curtain or off too far from the main action. Because every day Marie, and sometimes her husband, and sometimes older brother, Robert, make their grand entrances through that door. And most of the time, their entrances do not make Deborah or Ray happy.

We tend to think of back drops and scenery as something not so very important, merely suggestive of the time and place. But scenery can also be an element that provides the characters fodder for some juicy situations. The condition of the room says a great deal about the mindset and the life of the people who inhabit that space.

Unfortunately for Deborah Barone, the messy living room provides opportunities for her mother-in-law to exert her power. And, although Ray is oblivious to the kid mess spread out over the room, he sometimes glances nervously at that front door.

Like Ray and Deborah, how can we add elements to our scene that help delineate the characters’ foibles and concerns, personality, and emotions?

Did you ever see the Hitchcock move, Rear Window? James Stewart plays a successful, driven journalist/photographer who has broken his leg and must sit around in his New York city apartment, staring out his window. That big window becomes a major player in the story when Stewart’s character witnesses suspicious happenings (possibly a murder?)in the apartment across the way.

Have you seen Casa Blanca? Remember Rick’s nightclub? Unnamed people sit at tables, talking, drinking, being part of the scenery. Above, a whirring ceiling fan suggests the oppressive heat of North Africa. Cigarette smoke wafts through the room. The walls are white stucco. German officers sit at tables. We feel swept into 1940s German-controlled Morocco.


Your Set Controls the Behaviors of Your Characters

If your scene is set inside an expensive restaurant, how would that affect the characters’ dialogue or behavior? Would the tone and dynamic of a conversation be different than, say, a city park or a police station?

Remember Beverly Hills Cop? Axel, the clever and funny detective from Detroit shows up at a ritzy Beverly Hills restaurant, definitely not dressed for the occasion. Already, we’re nervous because we know that his conscious decision to wear a tee shirt and jeans in a suit and tie establishment is going to spell trouble. The environment told us Axel is going to get it.


How Your Set Creates Mood

Ever read To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s the south during the depression. Scout and Jeb wonder about the occupant in the creepy and dilapidated house down the street. Each day the two children must pass that awful house, and as they do, they speculate about the rumors they’ve heard about Boo Radley. How he stabbed someone and ever since, they’ve kept him away from other people. When the wind blows, Boo’s screen door squeaks and bangs against the door jam. Sometimes the porch floor boards creak. Now that’s a setting that sets the tone for most of the novel.


Take advantage of every opportunity to use the environment of your scene to say something about your character or the situation. Try to imagine things you can place in your scenery that might create emotion. It doesn’t have to be negative emotion, either. Some sets make us feel good, or ready to laugh.

In conclusion, here are some questions to ask yourself as you create “scenery” that will help your readers gain insight into your characters and their story:

  1. How does your scenery suggest time and place?
  2. How does your scenery suggest the mood?
  3. Do elements in the set foreshadow events?
  4. What does your set say about your character(s)? Is is super neat, or messy, like the character? Or is it sparcely furnished, to suggest poverty? Are there art works on the wall? Are they expensive and tasteful, or something the character would have purchased from a re-sale shop?
  5. How does your set or scenery control or influence your character?

Last words: if there is anything you can place in your scene environment that will add some spice to the forthcoming dialogue or shed some light on one of the character’s personality or motivations, do it.








Staging Your Scene

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Part 1

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!