Monday, May 11, 2020

The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A great scene is about more than just describing what's there--or what's going on.

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 those readers), it's important to dramatize our scenes and bring them to life.

If we only focus on painting word pictures and describing what's going on, 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 a novel that is both vividly painted and well dramatized.

Painting a Scene: The Sense Details

A well-painted scene uses all the senses and evocative descriptive words to help readers visualize the "picture" in your mind. You'll likely use a lot of adjectives, adverbs, and phrases on what things look like. The focus is on the senses--the way 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. Often, nothing happens in "word pictures" because they're inherently about description or mood, not action.

Here are ways to make those sensory details do more than just paint 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 an ominous future. The right descriptive words can also help describe the setting, show judgement from the point of view character, and turn bland into enticing. 

    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 Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

    Dramatizing a Scene: The Action and Drive

    A well-dramatized scene brings the action of the scene to life and puts readers right in the middle of it. It shows what the characters are doing, so you'll use a lot of nouns, 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 dialogue:
    • What is your character trying to accomplish?
    • What's in the way of her/him 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 dialogue, and does it move the story forward?
    • Is your character doing anything or just thinking?
    Dramatizing a scene rarely results in heavy visuals. The focus is on the doing, not the looking, and sometimes it can feel like things are happening in a blank room. It's also easy to get so caught up in the action that you lose all sense the character and their emotions in the scene.

    Here are ways to make 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 Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

    A well-crafted scene will have the right balance between drama and description, so 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 that 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? 

    Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
    Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

    With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
    • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
    • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
    • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
    • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
    • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
    Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

    Available in paperback and ebook formats.

    Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

    She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

    When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
    Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


    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!

    3. Thank you Janice, as always your articles are great guidance and inspiration.