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Now to continue with Chapter Six. If you missed the previous post or would like a refresher, you can find Chapter Six, Part I on the website under the tab labeled Writing the Character-Driven Story.
The Minor Setting and the Transitional Setting
If the scene takes place in a minor or transitional setting, the description matters a lot less or not at all, depending. On what? In my case, it depends on what my POV character notices that is relevant to the story.
And that’s actually a trick statement. If the POV character notices it, it is relevant to the story. At least the story he’s telling.
Most of the time, in an action scene, the setting will be minor at best, or even transitional.
Perhaps something like this.
Whenever Denny chanced a glance out a side window, buildings and windows and people flashed past, blurred into streaks of black and grey. Dismal.
And that smell. That filthy, stale steam stench that emanates from manhole covers. But maybe that was only his own frustration and fear.
He glanced at the rearview mirror. Damn cops were relentless. His back window flashed eerily, blue, red, blue. The sirens all but punctured his ears.
He shifted his attention back to the front, back to the hope that he would escape.
As if that was going to happen.
He glanced back again and—
And then he moves into another scene. But this one is major so everything matters again. Everything necessarily slows down. And notice that the character focuses more on smaller, tighter, more specific details.
Remember to describe only what the POV character, in his current frame of mind and condition, would notice.
A volcano of massive confusing sounds, and then something hit his jaw and tore it sideways. Did it rip completely off? And in the second half of that instant the top of his head slammed into stars.
Only his breathing. Alive. He was alive.
And a quiet hissing. He knew that sound. He frowned. What was it?
That same stale steam still permeated the humid air. Air so thick it was running alongside his face.
He wanted to wipe it away but something. He tugged. Something trapped his right arm.
He reached with his left. Got it. Wiped again.
The stuff was like thin, warm glue. He wanted to taste it but he didn’t want to taste it.
And that hissing. What in the world was that hissing? He knew that sound.
Something familiar. Something real.
The lawnmower. That’s all it was.
Halfway through mowing the yard, the lawnmower sputtered. It was almost out of gas, so he shut it down.
He pushed it to the shed and opened the gas cap. That thing was so stiff. And sharp. The part that stuck up in the center for a screwdriver gouged his palm.
But he had to finish the lawn. He took the cap off the spout, and the can sucked air for a second. Mary left the vent valve closed again.
He put the spout at the opening of the gas tank and turned up the can but it slipped. That’s what it was. And some gas spilled on the hot manifold and—
His eyes grew wide. Oh god no! No! Oh damn! Oh, no, it can’t—
And the world exploded, and a microsecond out, it flashed to black.
So that would be a minor setting slamming into a major setting. Both are in the car, but in the first, the setting is flashing past. In the second, it’s stock still.
In a purely transitional setting, you can get away with very little or no description. Transitional settings can be anywhere. The hallway in the mansion was a transitional setting. If the character is getting out of a car and nothing of note happened in the car, the car is a transitional setting. If the character is crossing a sidewalk or a lobby and nothing happens on the sidewalk or in the lobby, those are transitional settings.
The point is, as your POV character moves from one setting to another, it’s your job as the writer to enable your readers to see, hear, smell, taste and feel what your POV character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling.
Focusing Down to the Unique
Again, the more specific the description of the setting, more engaged your readers will be with the scene.
It’s all right to say of an office that there was a bookshelf in one corner and a desk and chair in another. But if something happened in that office, focus down and describe that part of the office in greater detail.
Is there a body lying on the rug in front of the desk? What does the rug look like? If there’s a wound, what is the pattern of the wound? If there’s blood, what is the pattern of the blood? Is there a pool of blood? Spatter?
If there’s spatter on the desk, what does the front of the desk look like? Is the desk oak? Maple? Does the grain run vertically? Horizontally? Is there a lip where the top overlaps the front?
If your character (detective, perpetrator, maid or butler with a secret) is going to sit down and go through the desk, again, focus down.
What items are on the desk, at least in the vicinity of the character’s hand? Does he open a drawer? What’s the drawer pull look like? Run of the mill round or unique? If unique, how? Does it look like leaves overlapping? Is it brass? Bronze? Wood?
Is the edge of the desk or the edge of a drawer chipped? What if the desk wasn’t broken into? Does a chip on the edge of the drawer still matter? Yes. It focuses the reader down into the scene. It can also provide misdirection.
Notes on Writing the Scene
I originally was going to devote an entire separate chapter to Writing the Scene. But that is not necessary, and doing so would be repetitive.
Chapter 4, Writing the Opening, combined with the Writing Setting part of this chapter and the examples in this chapter, form a crash course on writing the scene. Here are just a few more notes to help you along in that regard.
Remember that the story is the character’s story to tell. The story is broken into scenes.
The scene is centered around a single major event. It is the vehicle by which the characters interact and advance the story from its beginning to its conclusion.
A very short story might have only one scene that moves through only one or two or three major settings.
The Length of Scenes
In his Master Plot Formula, Lester Dent recommended a 90,000 word novel be broken into thirds. Each 30,000 word section would then be divided into five 6,000 word chapters. Each 6,000 word chapter would be divided into four 1500 word scenes.
But the length of the scene is up to you. When students ask me how long a scene should be, I tell them to write until they’ve covered the single event for which that scene exists.For some that will take 800 to 1000 words, about an hour’s work. For others it might take 1500 words or 2000 words. Much depends on what is going on in the scene, how many characters are involved, and whether it contains sub-scenes.
I know one major author who writes one scene per chapter. I know another who writes 10-11 page (2500 to 2750 word) chapters regardless of how many scenes are included. I recommend you apply your own numbers to suit the average length of your scenes.
If it helps, you may treat a scene as a story within a story. For example, in a multiple viewpoint novel, you can switch POV characters at the beginning of a scene. You can also do a cliffhanger or bit of suspense at the end of each scene. Some genres practically require it. Others, not so much.
For me, the most important thing about the scene is that once it begins to unfold, I can “see” pretty much the whole thing in my head. Most of the time it’s all I can do to type fast enough to get it down. And I am eternally grateful for every second of frantic typing.
This chapter was long, so I thought a summary might be a good idea. Here you go:
- The setting is the location in which the scene takes place.
- You must ground the reader in the setting so he can experience the scene with the character.
- To ground the reader in the setting, allow your character to descend into the setting himself.
- Major settings, those in which scenes actually take place, need more description.
- It’s all right to begin with general descriptions in major settings, but it’s important to focus down quickly to the details that matter. Focusing down to those details ground the reader more firmly in the setting.
- Minor or transitional settings require little or no description.
- Most writers use only the sense of sight. Use as many of the five senses as possible at the beginning of every scene to ground the reader in the scene and make the story more real.
Next up, Chapter 7—Writing the Ending and the Resolution.
‘Til then, happy writing!
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