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Monday, August 18

Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

As writers, we strive for beautiful writing, but a novel is more than just pretty language. It's a story about characters overcoming obstacles, and to capture that action (and readers), it's important to dramatize our scenes and bring them to life. If we only focus on painting word pictures and describing the scenes, we miss out on the chance to show that scene in action. Just as we miss out on opportunities for engrossing pictures if we only focus on the drama.

Let's take a look at the two sides and how you can use both to create novels that are both vividly painted and well dramatized.

Painting a Scene

Painting a scene is crafting it with descriptive words, so you'll see a lot of adjectives and adverbs and phrases on what things look like. The focus is on the senses--the ways the sun shines through the trees, the breeze on the protagonist's face, the smell of the pine needles, the chirping of the birds, or the bile gathering at the back of a throat. When painting a scene consider the five senses:
  • Sight: What does the protagonist see?
  • Sound: What sounds does she hear?
  • Smell: Are there smells?
  • Touch: Are there textures or external physical sensations?
  • Taste: Does taste factor in at all? 
However, simply painting a word picture rarely results in a scene that moves the story forward and draws the reader in. Nothing happens in a word picture because they're inherently about description or mood. Here are some ways to make those sensory details do more than just show a pretty picture:
  • What details suggest something about the world?
  • Can any of these details foreshadow an event?
  • Are there clues to plot twists or plot points?
  • Can the details create tension or suspense?
  • What overall emotions can sensory details trigger?
  • Do any of these details evoke memories?
    As clich├ęd as the "gathering storm clouds" description has become, it's a wonderful example of how description can foreshadow something ominous brewing. Choose your word brushes and pigments wisely and paint a picture that pulls your descriptions into the action of the scene.

    (Here's more on making descriptions work for you)

    Dramatizing a Scene

    Dramatizing a scene is showing what the characters are doing, so you'll see a lot of nouns and verbs and phrases about how people are behaving. The focus is on the action--running to escape a monster, arguing with a spouse, climbing down the side of a building, or sobbing in the bathtub. When dramatizing a scene consider the goal-conflict-stakes-resolution structure, as well as dialog:
    • What is your character trying to accomplish?
    • What's in the way of her doing it?
    • What's the consequence for failure?
    • How does this action lead to the next scene or action?
    • Why is your character doing this?
    • Does your character interact with anyone else?
    • Is there dialog, and does it move the story forward?
    • Is your character doing anything or just thinking?
    Dramatizing a scene rarely results in a lot of visuals. The focus is on the doing, not the looking, and sometimes it can feel like things are happening in a blank room. Here are some ways to make those dramatic scenes do more than just get characters up and moving:
    • What details would someone in this situation notice?
    • How might the setting affect the goal of the character?
    • What items around the character might be used to complete the task?
    • What opportunities does this action offer to describe something important to the story?
    • What details might hinder the character's goal, add conflict, or raise the stakes?
    • What details are revealed by not saying or describing something?
    (Here's more on making your scenes pop)

    A well-crafted scene will have the right balance between drama and description, so that readers feel immersed in the scene without being overloaded by it. This balance will vary by genre and what the scene is trying to accomplish, so don't feel every scene must have the same action-to-detail ratio. A climax will likely have more action and less description, while an emotional turning point might have more description and introspection, but not be as active.

    Use the opposite of the scene's focus to enhance the scene, not clutter it up. For action, use details that bring the drama to life and make it more exciting, For description, use details that suggest the larger action in the story. And trust your writer's instincts--if something feels off, there's a good chance it is.

    Do you prefer to paint word pictures or dramatize scenes? Is one harder than the other for you? Which do you do first? 

    Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

    In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

    A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

    Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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    1. When I write a scene, I nearly always focus on the action first. That's because to me a scene IS action. Who is involved? What are they trying to do? Who or what is preventing them from accomplishing their goal? I've had to train myself to put more description and sensory details into my scenes.

      The irony here is, I'm an artist. My "day job" is painting pictures. I guess my brain's left and right sides just don't play well together. :P

      1. That's so funny, you just described me. I'm a graphic designer, not a fine artist, but close enough! One of my beta readers is wonderful with description and she pokes me with the description stick to make sure I put them in. I highly recommend one of those :)

    2. Janice, I absolutely love your site. You give the most useful, interesting advice. I had not thought about how these two things could work together so well to create so much richer of a story. I hadn't really thought about it at all, but if I do now I'd say I try to balance painting word pictures and dramatizing scenes, but I tend to isolate one from the other. I love your ideas here and am keeping this handy so I can use it in both my writing and editing. Thanks!

      1. Thanks so much! You can easily focus on them individually during your drafting process if that works for you. I'll do a different pass for different things to make sure I get it all done. For example, check once for getting the action where you want it with solid descriptions, then go back and check the descriptions and make sure they help the action. But if you can train yourself to do it as you write, even better!