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 clichéd 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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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