The Writing Life

Mise En Scene: Create Strong and Compelling Scenes

A piece of writing, whether it is a short story, novel, or memoir, is dependent on the strength of its scenes. A well-crafted scene lodges itself in the reader's imagination and pushes the story toward its denouement. But one of the more troubling aspects for beginning writers is knowing how to craft a well-written scene, one that performs all the duties of storytelling and makes for compelling reading. Here are some surefire ways to make your scenes lively and compelling for your readers.

One of the first things a writer must ask herself before she begins writing a scene is whether or not the scene is necessary. Not all information written in a story can be conveyed through a scene. Passages of time, a character's background, even certain conversations between characters can be better conveyed through summaries. A scene, on the other hand, sets the stage for the story or plot to move forward, conveying ideas, images, conversations, etc. that submerges the reader into the narrative world of your writing. The scene is not unlike a play in which actors ascend the proscenium in order to enact the action and dialogue of the drama. The questions the writer must ask herself is: what is it do I want to convey in the scene? What needs to be established?

There are a number of things a writer can convey in a scene that she cannot through summary. One: character development. While a writer can describe a character's personality or history through summary, the scene allows the reader to actually see how those personality or psychological traits play out within the story's plot. In other words, the scene allows the writer to show, not tell. Let's say your character is a hypochondriac. He fears that the world is a dangerous place, full of viruses and germs that will infect him and make him ill. He is paranoid and psychosomatic. How does the writer convey her character's idiosyncratic behavior within a scene? One thing she can do is write a scene in which her character exhibits this behavior through a series of concrete actions. For instance, the character can be shown sterilizing his apartment for germs or having an emotional fit when a family member or friend unintentionally leaves a palm print on his favorite drinking glass. The writer doesn't necessarily have to tell the reader that the character is a hypochondriac, but it shows through his actions and dialogue:

Charlie sat on the sofa, wrenching his hands in his lap while Tanya lifted his glass and pressed it to her mouth. Beads of sweat formed on his upper lip, his forehead. His heart thrashed inside him. He already sensed the millions of germs swarming in the smudge of lipstick she left on the rim of the glass, squirming obscenely against the glass, threatening to do their business. His stomach churned.

"That, that was my glass," he stammered.

"Oh," said Tanya, lowering the glass back down on the coffee table and giggling. "I'm sorry."

In this passage, we see Charlie reacting to Tanya spreading germs on his glass. The scene conveys Charlie's behavior, his physical repulsion over Tanya's unintentional act. Rather than being told that Charlie is a hypochondriac and germ-freak, the reader sees it through his reactions, his behavior, even his physical repulsion to Tanya. The scene conveys much more about who Charlie is than a narrative summary could.

Another point that is established within a scene is plot development. A carefully chosen scene moves the story forward. The real question for the beginning writer is what scene will she choose that will get the story moving. This is where knowing the plot of your story and where you intend for it to go is important. A great way to determine whether the scene moves the story forward or not is by asking these following questions:

1. Does the scene provide new information in the story?

Does the scene offer the reader something new about the plot or the characters that she hasn't been made aware of previously? For instance, in the example used above, the scene might reveal exactly how Charlie became a hypochondriac. It might be a flashback to his childhood, a significant moment that shaped who Charlie is. The scene doesn't necessarily have to be long (in fact, flashbacks should generally be limited to less than a page) and can even involve one or two lines of dialogue. But the scene should be able to show the reader something about the character that she doesn't already know about him.

2. Does the scene foreshadow events that will occur later in the story?

One of the most common foreshadowing in storytelling is that of the gun. As the adage goes, if a gun is introduced in a story, it must be used at one point in the narrative. A scene can foreshadow what will happen later in the story, or be a major plot point that moves the story forward. Using Charlie as an example again, we can write a scene in which Charlie first meets Tanya. Let's say that Charlie works in a bank and Tanya is a co-worker. It is apparent in the scene, through the exchange between Charlie and Tanya, that she is attracted to him and wants to get to know him better. We see through Charlie's interaction that she makes him uncomfortable and that he lacks the social skills that other men his age might have in flirting with women. This scene will foreshadow the difficulties this young couple will have during the course of their interaction with one another. But it can also convey something about Tanya, her determination or willful blindness to Charlie's own discomfort toward her, thus revealing an assertive aspect to her character that will play an important role in the story's denouement. Since there is so much to be revealed here, both about Tanya and Charlie, that a scene works much more in conveying this information than a narrative passage.

3. Does it move the story forward? Does it introduce a major plot point in the story?

All stories have plots that move story forward if it is to have a satisfying denouement. But not all stories have plot points that are big neon signs flashing to the reader that the plot has thickened, so to speak. Plot points don't have to be so obvious, but it's important that your story has them. A scene could best convey a plot point in the story, highlighting its significance to the reader. Again, let's say that Tanya is a young mother raising a toddler son on her own. We've already learned earlier in the story that Charlie, being a hypochondriac, is particularly biased toward children since they carry germs and get sick easily. Another bit of foreshadowing can be added to show Charlie's dislike and repulsion toward children, so that when Charlie finally meets Tanya's young son, we will know immediately what his reaction will be. The question this next scene will try to answer is what will Charlie do once he meets Tanya's son? Will he run away and not see Tanya again or will he struggle through his own insecurities and phobias to establish a relationship with both Tanya and the young boy? How Charlie responds in this scene will determine how the story moves forward. Rather than simply telling the reader how Charlie reacted to his encounter with the boy, show Charlie's reaction instead:

Charlie gazed at the young boy with a mix of horror and dread. The toddler banged his little blocks on the floor, fascinated by the noise he was creating, glancing momentarily up at Charlie with a stupid grin on his round, pudgy face as though to say "Look what I can do." Then the boy did something that almost made Charlie faint: lifting his hand, he wiped it beneath his nose, pressing it so hard that his nostrils flared, releasing whatever germs and viruses that were lurking in the dark pockets and transferring them to the back of his hand, the very hand that Tanya had insisted Charlie shake.

"Isn't he just adorable?" said Tanya, smiling proudly.

Charlie grinned inwardly, sheepishly. He didn't know what to say. He wanted to run as far away from that place as his legs could allow, and yet, he stood there, feet planted to the bare floor, staring at young Hector banging his blocks with willful abandonment and a free-spirited joy that, against Charlie's better instinct, oddly earned him his admiration.

In this scene, we see Charlie's ambivalence, his desire to run away but his fascination with the young boy's free-spiritedness, a character trait which Charlie lacks but perhaps longs to have. Again, only a scene can reveal this aspect of Charlie's character, but it also reveals the story's plot point. Charlie's slow realization that he wants to be as assertive in life as Tanya or as free-spirited as her son, to be free from the fears and phobias that have governed his life, is a plot point that moves the character toward his transformation in the denouement.
Setting, dialogue, and description are also important in writing scenes that jump off the page. It's always important to establish setting in your scenes. While you don't necessarily have to have the kind of details that 19th century novels were known for, it doesn't hurt to show your reader where your scene is taking place. If the story is taking place in someone's living room, describe what is in the room. Is it furnished? What type of furniture is in the room? Is it expensive or cheap? What is hanging on the walls? How large is the room itself? By establishing some of these details, not only will you create a scene that the reader will be able to delve right into, but you'll also be supplying details about your characters through their environment. If the room is sparsely furnished and with inexpensive pieces, you convey to the reader that the character who resides there is perhaps on a fixed income, or perhaps is an ascetic. Whatever the case, these small details add depth and clarity to your scenes.
Dialogue is especially important in creating strong and compelling scenes. Dialogue is usually the most difficult to write, especially if the writer has a tin ear for the way people talk. Beginning writers will often misuse dialogue for exposition. Characters begin talking as though they were narrators in a documentary, spewing every detail of the plot. Or the writer will have her characters speak in formal, stilted language: "We must hurry or we will miss the picnic today, which is being held at the downtown park where there will be a live band performing. Oh, Joe, let us not be late; I do not want to miss the live performances."
Not very many people talk this way, and it doesn't make for very good reading. Eliminate details that could best be told through narrative passages and focus on the important things you want the characters to reveal about themselves in dialogue.

If you're having trouble writing dialogue, listen to how you or your friends talk during conversations. Take notes or record them so that you can refer to them again. Notice how informal their speaking patterns are. They use colloquialisms and often drop their "g's" and hem and haw before speaking, using "ah" or "oh" or "hm" as pause gaps. Dialogue in writing doesn't try to capture exactly the way people speak in real life (reading a whole page of "hms" and "ohs" is pointless and distracting), but does try to capture the rhythm and pitch of human speech as accurately as possible. It's also best to write dialogue that is full of subtext. In real life, we often don't say what we really mean. Sometimes we speak around the issue, hedge, or are sarcastic or sardonic. While there are a few people who speak off the cuff and say exactly what they mean, most of us speak in cryptic codes that hide our true intentions and meanings. Dialogue in stories are no different. For instance, let's say a couple who is on the verge of breaking up are talking about where they will go out to dinner that night. Both individuals are aware that their relationship has reached its end, though neither is willing to admit this openly, and certainly not to each other. They, for whatever reason, still cling to the familiarity of being in a relationship, even though neither are getting anything fulfilling out of that relationship anymore. Their dialogue might sound something like this:

"How about the Lumiere?" said Garvey, wrinkling the newspaper.

"The what?" said Linda.

"It's a new place. Just opened up recently. I thought we'd might try something new."

"The Lumiere?" said Linda, lifting her eyebrows. "Is that French?"

"Yeah," said Garvey, sighing. "It's French."

"I don't like French, Garvey."

"I thought we'd try something new. It's a new place, it just opened up. It got a lot of good
reviews in the paper."

"You know I don't like French cuisine, Garvey. You know that. I can't stand the stuff."

"It was just a suggestion, Linda. You don't have to bite my head off."

The reader might not know exactly what is going on with Garvey and Linda, but she senses the tension in their conversation. Through dialogue, the reader experiences the tension in their relationship, becomes a fly on the wall, so to speak, in this very intimate moment in their lives. Only a scene can convey that sense of immediacy to the reader. Strong and compelling dialogue makes that scene come alive.

Another important aspect about the scene is that, like your story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Something significant has to happen in your scene. Sometimes, it can seem as banal as Garvey and Linda's disagreement over where they are going to have dinner, but the banality is misleading: something significant is being conveyed here: we are witnessing the slow dissolution of a relationship. This scene is simply of step toward that dissolution. Therefore, each scene is a story in and of itself, a self-contained step toward the resolution or denouement of your story. For instance, in the aforementioned scene with Charlie and Tanya in the bank, the scene can begin with Tanya approaching Charlie, her flirtation and Charlie's discomfort. The conflict in the scene occurs when Tanya asks Charlie to go out with her to the movies, but Charlie struggles to reject her without hurting her feelings. This is the middle of the scene. The ending occurs, as all endings must, with a resolution. When the conflicts are resolved, the scene ends. In this case, either Tanya or Charlie's conflict in the scene must be resolved in some way. For the purpose of the story, Tanya convincing a hesitant Charlie to go out with her is the better resolution because it pushes the story forward (though of course Charlie's end of the conflict could create a resolution in this scene that might take the story down another direction. Regardless, it's important to know where your story is headed and plot it in preparation for that movement). A satisfying scene always ends with little ambiguity as to where the overall story is headed. By the end of the scene with Tanya and Charlie, we know that Charlie gives in to Tanya's entreaties and agrees to go out with her. This sets the stage for what will follow, the questions we have in our minds as readers: what will happen next? Will the date go smoothly or will it end disastrously? When a well-crafted scene is written with a beginning, middle, and end, it pushes story forward and whets the reader's curiosity enough to keep her reading. And that, of course, is the ultimate goal of every writer: to keep the reader interested.

A well-crafted scene can do more than simply push story forward, but envelop the reader into your fictional world. Readers want to lose themselves in fiction, so writing strong and compelling scenes that pull them into that world are not only necessary to the success of a good story, but create memorable moments and experiences for your reader once she puts down your story. By covering some of these important tips to creating strong and compelling scenes, you'll be able to create the kinds of stories your readers will want to read over and over.