W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No. 4 Making a Scene


My mother used to shush me and say "Don't make a scene" whenever I got too emotional. She was a writer too, and created great scenes both off and on paper.

In writing prose we need to think in terms of scenes just like scriptwriters do. We all use location, set, props, movement and characters. We need to think of what happens off camera, off stage or off page as well. Imagining our prose on the stage or screen is another way to help us to fine tune our work.

Location/set: So many American sitcoms "ground" where the scene takes place by showing a building. The visual works, although by now it is overdone. We must show our readers know where they are located without ever saying "Monica's apartment". It helps if we know the geographic region. Place can change our characters. In a play you might show people dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a pine paneled room, with a cactus viewed from the window. In a short story, we draw the same scene with words.

Novel and short writers need to describe their "sets" for scenes but can often do it in a few words: "The room was stark, looking as if the owners had turned it over to an interior decorator who had a white fetish." The reader certainly wouldn't put lots of Early American braided rugs, maple furniture and chintz in this scene. We don't need to be like the Victorian writers who often described their sets in such detail that the action of the story got lost.

In theater we see every piece of furniture on the stage. Sometimes sets are so elaborate that nothing is left to imagination. Other times, a few pieces of furniture are all that are used. The audience is left to imagine the rest. In A. Gurney's play Love Letters, a man and a woman sit at two desks reading their letters from the time they were in school until one of them dies several decades later. The audience sees them go from naughty school children to lovers, to friends until one dies. The desks never change, but our imaginations carry us through the decades with them.

Props: Have you ever noticed in soap operas there always seems to be ice in the ice bucket? I owned an ice bucket for 15 years before selling it at a garage sale because I never used it. The ice bucket was also a prop in one of my short stories about a couple getting a divorce and selling their ice bucket at a garage sale. A pair of bickering newlyweds bought it. Objects in fiction can act as symbols or can just add depth to the scene. If a man polishes his bowling trophies we know he bowls and is proud of his success. We might also imagine the case he keeps them in.

Movement of plot: Movie and TV scenes move a plot forward. Novel and short story scenes need to advance the plot as well. I recently read a wonderful scene with a man and woman talking in a bookstore. Unfortunately it added nothing to the story and the conversation was repetitive of an earlier scene. Unlike scriptwriters novel and short story writers have the luxury of describing what else is going on in the scene. In script writing the dialogue and physical actions have to carry the plot.

Movement of people: In scripts we might write, "Hero enters stage left". In prose we would never do this, but we do need to be aware of how our characters arrive, leave and move around a scene. If we've described a room as crowded it might ring untrue to have a long, leggy hero striding across the room unless he bumps into furniture.

Less is more. A mistake many beginning writers make is to give too much detail on a character's movement. "He stood up, walked across the room, picked up the telephone and dialed." All that is necessary is for the character to dial. Of course we can't have written earlier that the only phone was in the kitchen while the character calls from the bedroom.

Off camera: In Shakespeare an actor might do an aside, coming out to tell the audience additional information. I suppose this is theatrical equivalent of a flashback. Too many are annoying and break the action.

Off camera…some things happen off stage. In Barefoot in the Park the young couple live several stories up in a New York apartment. They do not have an elevator. We hear the bell ring from the street, then a long time goes by. Finally their guest arrives, panting from the exertion. We don't need to see the person struggle upstairs. It works on stage. Sometimes we want to have our scenes reflect something that happened. A woman answers the door. A policeman stammers out her husband has been killed in an accident. The crash scene is never written. But be careful. Too many off camera scenes ruin dramatic tension. Carefully selected, they build it.


Mrs. Sen's is a short story from Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitizer Prize wining collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies - Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond.

The plot is simple: A young boy whose parents are divorced is baby-sat by a homesick Indian woman who has trouble learning to drive. Lahiri, however, writes scenes that are so vivid that they are worth examining. She casts out little tidbits, building our picture of the story behind the story. Mrs. Sen's would make a wonderful mini-drama.

  1. Scene one explains about the two baby-sitters before Mrs. Sen.
  2. Mrs. Sen's flat. The set is designed as a university apartment "with a row of mailboxes marked with masking tape or white labels." The dialogue moves the plot with talk of driving lessons.
  3. Mrs. Sen's kitchen where she is very precise in cutting her vegetables. The knife is a prop and a symbol.
  4. A scene where Mrs. Sen gets a letter from home. We are shown her homesickness.
  5. A fish market at the seaside. Fresh fish are very necessary for her sense of well being. Her trying to duplicate the food from home shows us that she is not adapting at all to the new country where she has been forced to live.
  6. A driveway where she practices driving.

The story is only 24 pages, but each scene is so crisp and so distinct that we live the story along with the characters. Dialogue is used to tell the young boy about how things were different in India. It is neither an aside nor a flashback, but by talking about her past we understand Mrs. Sen's present unhappiness.


  1. Tape a movie, play or sit-com. Using one file card for each scene, note the set, the props and the major actions
  2. Take any of your stories and make a file card for each scene. Describe the setting, the props, the dialogue and note how that scene advances the plot. This is an ideal exercise if you wish to reshuffle the order of our scenes. If something is done off camera ask why and would it be more effective if it were written in "real time".
  3. Take a scene from any of your writing and draw it out on paper. Place where the furniture is, where your characters are and move them around. One of my students did this using her daughter's Fisher-Price doll house people.


I teach writing at the college level, and I appreciate your thoughtful article on including details in both fiction and non-fiction. Instead of "telling" us about "show, don't tell," you "show" us. Bravo!

I do, however, think your readers should know that when including trade-marked names, it is important to respect that distinction with the correct spelling and the TM or Registered trade-mark symbol. Also, trade-mark protects the company's integrity, and you should be careful how that name is used. Presenting it in a potentially damaging light could result in the kind of writing time my friend Ian Watson referred to in his letter about Jeffrey Archer. (Published in February W3)

Dorothy Helms

Editors Response : a special thanks to Ms. Helms for this letter. I should have thought of it since, I go by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) several times a week and as soon as I finish this newsletter, I'll walk a guest dog with Nandita, the little girl down the hall. Her mother works for WIPO. It also made me double check the spelling of Fisher-Price in the exercise section. I found it both hyphenated and unhyphenated. When I added Inc. to my search the company web site came up with a hyphen. Next month we'll discuss research and this type of issue.


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