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Staging the Scene

Image by Thomas H. [1] from Pixabay [2]

I have always been a visual writer. When formulating a scene, I have to envision each moment in exacting detail. As such, a good deal of my editing process involves scaling back, sharpening key images and finding short cuts to capture the feel of a moment with fewer words. Even so, I strive not to strip away all of my cinematic leanings. For me the set pieces of a scene are often as vital as crafting dialog, advancing plot points, or even developing character. For this reason, I am drawn to novelists who paint engaging worlds, those with a talent for evoking not only a sweeping backdrop for their stories but also details to bring their imagined settings to life. I revel in imagining the furnishings of an imposing home at the center of a family drama, or visualizing the mountain forest above a protagonist’s homestead, or learning of the businesses that line the main street of a fictional community. Unsurprisingly, given my interest in such matters, I am similarly drawn to stories on film which do the same.

My latest obsession in the latter realm is the surprise Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, which has taken the world by storm. In a production environment increasingly reliant on overly complex, multi-dimensional storylines, producer Allan Scott and writer / director Scott Frank have released a straight-forward narrative, trusting that a single compelling through-line of a tale is all that is needed to hold the attention of a modern audience.

They were right! Beth Harmon, the young chess prodigy protagonist, captivates from the start. Her meteoric rise to the top echelon of the chess world while struggling with the demons of a traumatic childhood provides more than enough dramatic tension to propel the seven-episode arc to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But while many ingredients contribute to the show’s success, including top-notch acting from a talented cast, what stands out for me is the clear devotion given to ensure that each scene was stage-crafted to perfection, with every component – from lighting to color tone to camera movement – designed to reinforce the mood of the moment and underscore the emotional forces at work.

You may ask: “What does any of this have to do with writing?” After all, most writers have no training in set design or cinematography; and a novel is literally a black-and-white medium. There is no musical score, nor a smidgen of live action to be found.

I would argue that writers should absolutely evaluate their stories from a cinematic perspective. For while motion pictures are clearly a different format, the best written works are undeniably visual in nature. Indeed, the magic of writing is the intricate dance by which an author provides just enough imagery to allow a reader to flesh out an entire world, and then to place themselves in the midst of the described action. It is this alchemy which triggers an emotional response, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.

Thus, the question in my opinion is not whether a writer should strive to inject more stagecraft into their scenes, but how to do so. How does one elevate visual imagery within scenes in a meaningful way? And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel? Below are a few ideas for doing so.

Use the Entire Stage

Every writer, be they plotters or pantsers, comes to their story (or perhaps it comes to them) with images in mind. Perhaps the characters of one tale inhabit 1820s London. Maybe those of a second are guests at a decaying seaside hotel in a now withering boomtown. And in yet another, perhaps a crew has just landed on an alien planet experiencing ferocious volcanic activity. It is the very nature of writing that as one strings together the initial draft, details emerge. Perhaps the aging hotel of the second example has a back staircase, now sagging on one side, which leads to a neglected music parlor with a dusty piano shoved into the corner. Maybe the protagonist in the London tale is a penniless runaway who sleeps beneath the docks and lies about his age to gain employment as a shipbuilder.

Images that emerge in a first draft, descriptions that might at first blush simply fill the page to get from plot point A to B, become set pieces to move about and insert, or alter, to advance your story and to engage your reader. Lean into those that resonate and employ them to capture the mood of key scenes. Perhaps one of the hotel guests is an abused wife who flees to the abandoned musical room after a particularly brutal encounter. And there, crouched beneath the piano, she weeps while recalling a tune her mother used to play for her as a child, long before the hell her life has become now. Maybe the runaway in London makes a friend and, fessing up to his homelessness, leads him to the cluster of pylons where he beds down. And as they proceed to drink the night away on cheap ale, the lad realizes that the music from the pub above sounds sweeter than it has since his arrival.

The point is both of these examples have potential to be highly visual scenes. Every story draft is bubbling with similar possibilities. Even a tale of a bedridden widow confined to one room has layers waiting to be explored – a scrapbook with a lifetime of images laying on the bedside table, the hillside monastery visible from the tiny window and the way the light strikes the spire just before sunset. In crafting and editing your story, consider how to use all your set pieces to full advantage. Consider the most appropriate setting in your imagined world for a climactic confrontation, or a tearful reunion. Mix things up to keep things interesting, for you and for your reader.

Details, Details

Some months ago, at the start of the pandemic, I was on the receiving end of a persistent stream of MasterClass advertisements in my social media feeds. One of them was a short video of Natalie Portman speaking about acting techniques, which I dutifully watched (it was, after all, Natalie Portman). She appeared on a stage set as the apartment of a fictional boyfriend her character suspects is cheating. Wandering about, she spoke of getting into the character’s head by improvising with props found on the set. As I recall, she used one of his golf clubs to crack the screen of his television and set fire to a pile of his dirty laundry.

In other words, she focused on the objects laid out before her. Similarly, we have the opportunity to do the same with elements from our stories. Details can center the mood of a scene. Perhaps your character has a prized possession, an heirloom ring inherited from a favorite aunt, for example, that at a critical juncture can serve to symbolize or contrast with some aspect of their own marriage.

Details can also cement a place and time. When writing my first novel, I sprinkled tidbits from my research of WWI France into the narrative for authenticity. But the most effective images derived from that research weren’t expected ones, such as views from the Eiffel Tower in 1918. Instead, they were lesser known details that spoke to the immensity of the war, such as the fact that prominent museums had to be converted into hospitals to care for the ever-rising number of maimed soldiers from the ceaseless fighting. That knowledge provided not only a good visual for the reader, but also advanced the story by leaving an impression on my protagonist as well.

Bottom line – Take the time to evaluate artifacts from your drafts and consider how they might be utilized to add layers of meaning or emotion to your story.

Build Grand Sets (and use them)

While I don’t want to veer too far into world-building here (saving that topic for another time), it’s important to note that one should aim high when creating the stage for story action. The Queen’s Gambit excelled at this aspect of visual storytelling. From the orphanage where protagonist Beth Harmon is sent as a child, to her adoptive suburban home, to the locale of each stateside and international chess tournament, every setting in the series is memorable. In each, the colors and the shapes (and the shadows) establish a mood. And while again, clearly, writing has no direct equivalent visual capability, lessons can be learned from a masterfully realized film production.

The creative team behind The Queen’s Gambit knew they had to keep each setting fresh, particularly when it came to the chess tournament sequences, which if handled poorly would quickly have felt redundant and tedious. For that reason, they gave each location a distinctive edge. The fictional mid-60s Las Vegas hotel offers a mash-up of glitz and glamour, complete with a sweeping spiral stair curving around an oversized dice sculpture in the grand lobby. The Mexico City set is filled with brightly lit geometric patterns, while the Moscow setting is more linear, with muted colors and expansive, tastefully lit rooms.

In a similar vein, writers should aim to construct memorable settings for their readers. Give the homes of your characters a sense of personality. Highlight unique aspects of real-life settings while adding intriguing layers to fictional ones. And most importantly, step back on occasion and ask yourself, “If this were a movie, would there be a more compelling location for the next scene?”

In many cases, you may not find a reason to deviate from your initial instincts. But by posing the question, you may gain a new perspective and on occasion find a new angle from which to propel your story.

Those are my observations, and ideas that have worked for me. What are your thoughts? Do you consider yourself a visual storyteller? If so, what techniques do you employ to give your writings a cinematic feel? Have any films influenced your writing style? If so, which ones and what lessons did you learn? Please share. I look forward to hearing from you.

About John J Kelley [3]

John J Kelley [4] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [5], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.