Making Scenes Come Alive

In reading somewhat older texts on the craft of writing, I came across The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, by Oakley Hall. The work isn’t perfect; it has some great chapters and some that are not so good. The one on dramatization or scene creation, however, is terrific. Hall starts with the fundamental elements necessary to bring a scene to life.

Detail – Senses – Motion – Metaphor

If you want to make your scene come alive, you will need: detail, senses, motion and metaphor.

Detail

Does your scene have too little detail? Can the reader visualize what’s happening? Writers want to impart detail but can’t because they haven’t fully imagined the scene in their mind’s eye. They’re not in the scene; rather, they’re voyeurs. A successful writer places herself in a scene she’s writing and describes it in a way that invites the reader to participate. The details should be believable and concrete, but with enough leeway to allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.” 

- Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

You must give detail to allow the reader to come into the scenes.

Let us examine the great minimalist writer, Ernest Hemingway.  You would think he did not give detail, use senses, motion and metaphor.  In fact, we have encountered writers who say they are a minimalist writer and therefore do not need detail, senses, motion or metaphor.  We disagree strongly.  We have passed on their manuscripts.  Here is the great minimalist:

“I went to the window and looked out.  The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew.  The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap.”

 – A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway

Do you see yourself in the scene?  How did Hemingway put you in the scene? 

He utilized detail, senses, motion and metaphor.

He made the scene come alive and as you read the words, you were there – in the fictional dream.

Here is a more recent example: 

“She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door.  It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded.  She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades.  She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?”

- The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

Do you see yourself in the scene?  How did Shreve put you in the scene? 

She utilized detail, senses, motion and metaphor.

She made the scene come alive and as you read the words, you were there – in the fictional dream.

Senses  

Visual, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste, and Presence/God. 

Visual

 A writer must strive to balance a scene with enough detail that the reader can picture the scene.  She must balance between too little visual detail where the scene is a blur and too much detail where the writer slows down the story and bogs down the reader’s imagination. 

If a writer describes a scene by utilizing only the sense of sight, he’s telling us about a photograph: the description is two dimensional and thus boring. It is the classic mistake of beginning writers. It fails the fictional dream.

We have four other senses (and a sixth) and, as far as the fiction writer is concerned, each is equally important to include in his writing: hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Sound

Sound is so important because it starts to bring the scene alive through atmospherics.  The writer sets the scene.  The writer surrounds the reader with noise or silence.  The scene is no longer a postcard but place the reader occupies in their imagination.

“I went to the window and looked out.  The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew.  The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap.”

– A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway

Can you imagine the sound from the battery?

“She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door.  It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded.  She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades.  She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?”

 - The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

Can you imagine the sound of the knocking?  How about the dog barking? Are you in the scene?  I am.

Smell

Smell has the strongest association in a reader’s imagination.  For example: Every time I smell cinnamon raisin toast I think of my father.  He had cinnamon raisin toast every morning for breakfast with his coffee. 

What associations do you have with certain smells?  Coffee? Brownies?  Low tide at a beach?  A certain perfume?

Smell brings the scene alive and creates atmospherics for the reader.  The scene starts to be more than a postcard.  Let us return to that minimalist Hemingway:

“Robert Jordan pushed aside the saddle blanket that hung over the mouth of the cave and, stepping out, took a deep breath of the cold night air. The mist had cleared away and the stars were out. There was no wind, and, outside of the warm air of the cave, heavy with smoke of both tobacco and charcoal, with the odor of cooked rice and meat, saffron, pimentos, and oil, the tarry, wine-spilled smell of the big skin hung beside the door…” 

-For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Can you smell the scene? Tobacco. Charcoal. Cooked Rice and Meat. Saffron. Are you there in the fictional dream? I am.

Touch

I cannot overstate the significance of touch in writing a scene.  The sense of touch invites the reader to experience the scene.  It is personal to the reader when you describe touch.  It is like asking someone to buy a sweater.  First, you ask them to feel the soft cashmere. The sense of touch helps them to decide to buy the sweater. It is a personal invitation to the reader to participate in the story.

Let us return to that minimalist again.

“I went to the window and looked out.  The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew.  The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap.”

– A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway

And again:

“Robert Jordan pushed aside the saddle blanket that hung over the mouth of the cave and, stepping out, took a deep breath of the cold night air. The mist had cleared away and the stars were out. There was no wind, and, outside of the warm air of the cave, heavy with smoke of both tobacco and charcoal, with the odor of cooked rice and meat, saffron, pimentos, and oil, the tarry, wine-spilled smell of the big skin hung beside the door…” 

-For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Let us not forget Anita Shreve.

“She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door.  It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded.  She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades.  She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?”

 - The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

Again two paragraphs further into the story:

“She sat up and put her feet on the freezing floorboards. She had never understood why the wood of an old house lost its warmth so completely in the winter.”

- The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

Can you feel the warmth of the cave air or rather the cold outside air?  Do the floorboards freeze your feet also?  I can feel each scene. 

Taste

A sense of taste is used in eating but it can be extremely effective for other aspects we taste.  For example:

“The air smelt like war and tasted like gunpowder.”

Please be creative in your sense of taste – other than “her cooking tasted like dirt.”

Presence/God

We all have a sixth sense of things and places. We may walk into a room and feel a certain way about the place – yet no one is there.  The writer may convey that sense through internal dialogue.  It is when feel we are not alone in the world, physically alone, but not really alone. We have a sixth sense of things. 

A writer may convey that sense through atmospherics or internal dialogue.  

"John walked into the room certain he was not alone.  The curtains blew in the open window. He could swear somone was standing there.  He hesitated to turn around for fear he was right."  

Motion

Motion brings the scene alive to the reader. Again, motion brings the scene alive the reader!

I cannot emphasize enough that motion brings the scene alive.  A writer should have motion in every scene.

Let us go back to our favorite minimalist.

“I went to the window and looked out.  The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew.  The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap.”

 – A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway

Can you see him walk to the window? Looking out?  Can you see the air coming at you? Can you see the window shaking?  Can you see his pajamas move?

“Robert Jordan pushed aside the saddle blanket that hung over the mouth of the cave and, stepping out, took a deep breath of the cold night air. The mist had cleared away and the stars were out. There was no wind, and, outside of the warm air of the cave, heavy with smoke of both tobacco and charcoal, with the odor of cooked rice and meat, saffron, pimentos, and oil, the tarry, wine-spilled smell of the big skin hung beside the door…” 

-For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Can you see Robert Jordan pushing the saddle blanket aside?

I think the minimalist knows about motion.  Do you? 

How about Anita Shreve?

“She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door.  It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded.  She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades.  She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?”

 - The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

I can see her reaching up the lamp to find the switch.  Can you?

Also, I think F. Scott Fitzgerald knew about motion.

A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like flag poles, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine colored rug, making a shadow on it as the wind does on the sea.”

— The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I think the great writer knew about motion and was deliberate in putting in motion.

By putting motion in every scene, the story comes alive and moves in the imagination of the reader.  The scene becomes a fictional dream or a movie in the mind of the reader.  How much motion do you have in your scenes?

Metaphor

Being a fiction writer – a successful fiction writer – also requires a touch of genius. Let me explain. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and one of the West’s first literary critics, observed that among the gifts given to the poet (and by extension, for our purposes here, the fiction writer) is the ability to wield an effective metaphor.

“The greatest thing by far [for a poet] is to be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in that Ur-text of Western literary criticism, The Poetics. “It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”

Such “good resemblances” for the writer allows the reader to enter into not only the delight of the story through the detail and other elements mentioned herein, but the reader is also invited into the delight of language itself, comprehending, through metaphor and simile, the lesser known thing by the better known.

Let us again return to our minimalist. 

“I went to the window and looked out.  The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew.  The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap.”

 – A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway

The air strikes the window like a blow or punch.  I can see it and understand it better now.

How about Anita Shreve?

“She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door.  It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded.  She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades.  She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?”

 - The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve

A dream skitters behind a door?  What a great metaphor of understanding.

We cannot forget the master artist F. Scott.

“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like flag poles, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine colored rug, making a shadow on it as the wind does on the sea.”

— The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I certainly can picture that scene.  Curtains blowing, wedding cake ceilings and the sea winds in the room. 

Reaction of Protagonist and Other Characters

If your scene doesn’t describe the reaction of the protagonist and that of the other characters, you must rewrite it. What is the protagonist feeling? And how can you show that by description? What’s his facial expression? Does he exhibit nervousness? Relief? Fear? How do the other characters react? Are they sweating, smiling, turning to each other and winking? Looking for the door?

The process of describing anything—for example, a protagonist’s reaction—is a matter of showing, not telling. Indeed, the art of fiction writing is a rather intense undertaking – like the Chinese acrobats who must keep all the dishes spinning on the end of their bamboo staffs – the writer must constantly consider all angles, every character, and each particular, precise, anatomical, and nearly subatomic detail of the scene he is writing.

The following is an example of a scene without such attention – the writer is merely “calling it in” when it comes to setting up the scene:

“Gertrude was feeling nervous as her husband spoke to her.”

Now take a look at the same scene with hubcaps flying, dishes spinning and all guns blazing:

“‘So,’ Gertrude’s husband said, placing his elbows on the breakfast table and bringing his two index fingers together to a steeple-point beneath his chin, ‘I can’t help but feel that you might be in love with another man.’” “As she listened to Poindexter gingerly pick his way through a minefield of emotions, Gertrude played with her grapefruit spoon, rubbing her thumb up and down the perforated edge until little blebs of blood dripped down into the empty grapefruit rind on her plate.”

Feeling overwhelmed?  Don’t be.  What we have just described is how to make your scene come alive.  As you can see in the scenes not all senses are utilized in a scene, but two or three are in a scene.  If you just have visual sense in your scene, go back and put two more senses in your scene.

Motion is in every scene. 

If you have a scene and there is no motion, then go back and put in motion. 

Metaphors show a greater understanding and perception by the writer.  However, if one forces inaccurate metaphors, then the writing becomes clumsy and awkward.

Five Questions a Writer Must Ask about Every Scene 

1.) Does your scene have enough detail to enable the reader to visualize it – and does every detail count, nothing gratuitous or forgotten? Place yourself in the scene, what do you see? Do you have those details in your scene?

2.) In addition to the visual detail, have you included sensory details—of hearing, smell, taste, and touch—to invite the reader in the scene not as an observer but as a participant?

Rule of Thumb: If in two paragraphs you have not included non-visuals senses – you have failed to make the scene come alive and you have failed the reader.

3.) Do you have motion in your scene - so the scene comes alive in the reader’s imagination?

Rule of Thumb: If in two paragraphs you have not included motion in your scene – you have failed to make the scene come alive and you have failed the reader.

4.) Do metaphor and simile electrify my writing with a breadth and depth of language which yields to a better understanding of the scene so the reader’s “inner eye” can see what he’s reading as clearly as if the scene was unfolding before him?

5.) Have you conveyed the reactions of the protagonist and other characters in such a way that imparts to the reader the full experience of what’s happening and its impact, convincing the reader that each character in the scene is as well-depicted as each member of a professional acting troupe upon a stage?

If you haven’t answered yes to every question, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Tuscany Press Writer Exercise:

Take your favorite book, and take one chapter.

1.)  Highlight in yellow senses other than visual.

2.)  Highlight in green, motion.

3.)  Highlight in blue, the metaphors.

Now read the chapter and see how the author made the scene come alive!

Improve your manuscript: 

Next, conduct the exercise on your 1st chapter of your manuscript or first 3 pages of your short story.

1.) Highlight in yellow senses other than visual.

2.) Highlight in green, motion.

3.) Highlight in blue, metaphors.

Compare your work to your favorite book.  Do you see the difference?  

Now you know what you need to do to fix and "Make Your Scene Come Alive". If you make your scene come alive, you will separate yourself from the crowd and improve your opportunities to be published.

It is time to highlight and fix your short story or every chapter in your book.

 

 

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