[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] What I'm talking about to you today is aha moments that I've had as a writer. when you're starting a scene description, when you are setting up a particular scene, you want to set the scene sparingly.
[00:00:25] Now, I know, I know, this could be kind of controversial. If you're a novelist, you're thinking, well, yes, we're supposed to take the time to do all of our senses and make sure that we have the smell, the taste, the, the sounds, what we're seeing, of course, all those things, what it feels like.
[00:00:41] Yeah. Okay. That's true. And the same is true in a screenplay. You want to give an indication of all those things. However, if you take too long to do it, it bogs the story down. It slows the story down.
[00:00:59] So, you have about three things that you can sort of describe. You have to pick your details very specifically. You have to pick the very best of the best that's going to indicate the kind of tone you're going for. And then you have to get into the action of the story. You just can't take too much time.
[00:01:21] So then as you get into the action of the story you can continue to weave in those details.
[00:01:28] For example, let's say this is a supernatural thriller and you're trying to describe, um, something creepy that's happening out of doors, maybe, uh, a creature of some kind is watching a human who has wrecked on the side of the road and they're trying to change their tire or what have you and it's night.
[00:01:47] So the first thing that might happen is you start the scene with the human looking around, right? And it's eerie, and it's creepy, and there's no lights anywhere to be had, right?
[00:02:01] They get out their flashlight in their glove compartment or they get out their phone because we have a flashlight on their phone, right? And they keep their headlights on and maybe they turn down the music to listen, right? To listen, they roll down their windows and they listen and it's creepy, it's creepy.
[00:02:17] Maybe you decide to show the sky and at that exact time, you know, the, the clouds are sort of heavy and they conceal the stars and there's a layer of fog that goes across the land and we see rolling fog or something like that.
[00:02:37] Maybe there's a cabin in the nearby distance and we hear the creak, creak of shutters or something, but we don't maybe even know what that is yet.
[00:02:47] Or maybe when the character gets out of the car, it's fall and we hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of the leaves and it's almost jarring like it sounds like somebody walking on bones.
[00:02:57] I'm not sure. But the point is. You choose your best three details that can convey that and then you get into the action. And then as that character gets creeped out. You do other things, right? You don't do it all at once. You can't do it all at once. You have to let the scene unfold, which means you have to slow down.
[00:03:23] That's another thing that just seems to be happening is people rush these moments. They have these gems, but they're too afraid to milk it for everything it's worth.
[00:03:33] Slow down. Let the scene unfold in a natural, organic pace. Let the suspense build. Let the creepy factor build. And let the character, uh, be spooked out when they see a shadow or they think they see something and they spin around.
[00:03:53] And it's, and now they're creeped out and they're, Uh, they got the goosebumps and they just want to hurry and they want to hurry and then they're trying to turn the crank or whatever and they, of course, drop the bolt and now they hear something. And they look around and...
[00:04:07] Take your time, build these things.
[00:04:10] But the real point is that at the top of the scene, you want to set the scene sparingly. You allow it to keep coming out. I see this all the time where the writer describes everything in the room, all at once. Like, every single thing, like, we do a pan shot, we, uh, pan the room, and we see the pictures of the family, and we see her notebook that she carries with her, and her design notebook, and her college pamphlets, and we see the kind of bed cover she has, and we see that there's a bathroom on the right, and her closet on the left, a full length mirror leaning against the wall.
[00:04:46] We see it all at once, but we don't have to see it all at once. In fact, we shouldn't see it all at once. Some of those details should be revealed in the action of the scene. So if you start the scene where the character is asleep in bed and maybe, okay, we're panning the room and we see a couple of things and then we land on the character snoring logs in the bed, then as the character jars awake or what have you, she can get up from the bed and go to her dresser and reach for that locket.
[00:05:25] And now you show the locket and she, uh, fumbles with, she drops it on the floor. And so now she gets down on the floor and as she's getting down on the floor to find the locket, we pause on the clock. Click, click, click. That is an old fashioned clock set up on her desk and it rings right then, right? And she bumps her head as she comes up with the locket.
[00:05:50] I mean. I'm making this up as I go along, obviously, but the point is, as the scene unfolds, you're revealing more about what's in that room.
[00:05:59] Now, these might be essential things to the story. These might be very important things, either thematically or actually because they're going to play a role in the story.
[00:06:09] And here's the best part. When you do that, it becomes less like a setup. Because what happens is if you do it right, if you do it in the action of the character going about pursuing a goal, they're taking action, they're trying to get ready, they're fumbling, whatever, and you reveal those things at that time, now you can make it play a part, a role, in that.
[00:06:36] And we don't know we've been set up. The best way to have a set up and pay off is to make it invisible to us because it accomplishes something at the time.
[00:06:46] So in the example I gave of the clock that goes off, maybe that's an important clock. Maybe that clock is something she inherited from her grandma, and inside the clock she's going to eventually find that there is some sort of treasure map. And so the clock is important. The clock is important. But we show it in the context of her fumbling to get ready for work. She drops her locket. And now the clock that makes these weird ticking sounds, we don't know that that has anything to do with the treasure map later.
[00:07:21] We just think oh, that clock is ticking to remind her like she's running late or something. So we're not expecting as an audience for that to come back into play. And that is delightful for us.
[00:07:32] You also want to remember that you have to get into your story rather soon as well.
[00:07:40] So, what do I mean by this? See, this can also happen if you take too long to get to your main character at the very top of whatever story you're telling. Again, another mistake that I see a lot of writers making.
[00:07:53] So the only way that works is if you take the time to let us meet supporting characters, but I mean, that means you're really, really taking the time and you're really focusing on them a great deal.
[00:08:07] Now I've given this example from the film Witness before. This is what happens in Witness.
[00:08:12] We spend time with the characters, the supporting characters, of the Amish community. Of Rachel and Samuel, her son. Before we ever meet Harrison Ford. John Book doesn't come in until I think like page 14 or 15 of the script after the murder has happened. So we meet the villain, or at least we meet two of the major villains.
[00:08:34] We meet most of the major characters in the Amish community. Certainly we meet Rachel and Samuel, who are major supporting characters. But we don't actually meet John Book, the Philadelphia cop, until about page 15. Why? Well, it's because we need time to get to know the Amish community that, that fits for that particular story.
[00:08:57] But we're really taking the time to introduce them. We kind of already know what John Book is like. He's a tough Philadelphia cop. We know that type, but we don't really know the Amish community.
[00:09:08] So the writer switched the order of how we sort of introduce the characters and that's fine. As long as we're really learning who those characters are.
[00:09:18] Otherwise, you need to get your main character much more quickly. Certainly, if we're not getting to them right away then we better be diving deep into a supporting character, a major supporting character. And it better have a reason, it better make sense why we did that and why we delayed meeting our main character.
[00:09:40] Okay, so this is just something that I have found to be a consistent problem that I'm hoping uh, my tips here, my suggestions here will help you with.
[00:09:52] A. Make sure you don't spend too much time setting up the scene. You've got to get into the action, and then you keep revealing things and setting tone as you go with the action.
[00:10:04] And B. You've got to get to the main character pretty quick, unless you're going to dive deep into the supporting characters, in which case you can delay your main character, but only for so long.
[00:10:16] So, I hope that this has been helpful for you.
[00:10:19] Thank you so much for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.