A scene comes out of story naturally. In the past, my method has been simple: write the scene. Recently I've been thinking more about the planning that goes into a scene.
Some decisions—like conflict, tension, and stakes—are dictated by the story, but scene decisions can help you enforce those elements. That's really what scene decisions are all about, how to design a scene in a way that reinforces the story and affects the reader.
I'll write about a few of them in the next few weeks. This week setting has been on my mind.
Setting can provide emotional context, illuminate background, highlight character, and reinforce world building (that includes real world settings, folks).
In Thor: the Dark World, there is a scene where Jane Foster's date is interrupted by Darcy. You can watch it on YouTube. What does the setting say here? It's a nice restaurant; not cheap. Everyone (except Darcy) is well dressed, and we can see a lot of London through the windows. Jane put on lady clothes and took a shower. Richard (Chris O'Dowd's character) has a jacket and collared shirt. Behind Darcy there might be a bar.
Imagine if this scene had been in a greasy-burger joint and the characters dressed appropriate to that. Or if Jane had been sitting alone on her coach. How would the scene change?
What the setting says to me is that Jane and Richard have put effort into this date. Jane is trying to move on. Richard is quietly desperate. Darcy's interruption is untimely and unwanted. (The chairs are so heavy and loud, that she disrupts everyone around her.)
By the way, the elegant restaurant in this scene is the OXO Brasserie on the eighth floor of the OXO Tower, located on the River Thames.
Had this scene been on Jane's couch, it would have been a mere conversation. It would have been information. The plot would have moved forward, but not in an interesting and engaging way. (Though it might have said some things about Jane's not-moving-on in that case.) So this location adds humor and low-level tension, played on by Richards little interjections while Darcy delivers information. The setting has a job. It's saying something about the characters in this case. What's awesome is that it does it silently. In a novel, a writer could describe the setting—something that needs to happen anyway—and the job is done.
Setting lends itself naturally to imagery. Knowing the jobs a setting can do, a writer can construct images to build that effect. Writing this scene, a novelist could pick out which images reinforce the niceness of the place—glass walls, the view of London and the river, silverware, crystal, the other patrons. What images would do the trick?
So the qualities of a strong scene setting choice are originality, impact, and imagery.
As far as movies go, How I Live Now isn't bad. It's not the best movie I've seen this year; the dialogue is sometimes weak and the romance is contrived and too simple to drive the character through the challenges she faces, but—it does some interesting things that one rarely sees in a Hollywood production. (It's a British production, in fact.)
It begins as a basic story about an antisocial American girl visiting the UK against her will. She falls in love with a nice British boy against the nice country backdrop. Then, out of nowhere, bullets are flying, the bomb is dropped, explosions, radiation, contaminated water, forced labor, digging through corpse-piles to find family members, rape, murder, etc.
So, how does that work?
The change isn't exactly out of nowhere. The director and writer used effective foreshadow in the form of military presence in the airport, increased security screenings, bombing news in the background, conversations, etc. This all added a subtle layer of tension to the film that otherwise would have led to a jarring and unpalatable change in pace, conflict, genre, and style.
It's an unconventional and risky technique. Some won't like it, but I found it refreshing, despite the unnerving and unexpected bursts of violence and intense imagery. I like that it skipped the usual CGI-laden scenes of apocalyptic destruction and told the story on the ground, from a personal perspective.
In storytelling, there are often a multitude of changes that can turn a reader off. Beloved characters die, for example. Settings change without warning. Tone might change, as well as theme or pace. Foreshadowing is one technique a write can use to prepare the reader for that turn, and even create tension as they wait to see something they dread unfold.
In the case of How I Live Now, it made one critical difference—without that foreshadowing, I wouldn't have made it to the bomb. Even as it is, I was about to change to something else, but I kept watching a little longer because of those little hints at something awful just up the road.
Parenthetically, it is fair to say that perhaps it wasn't the best approach. The writer could easily have chosen to begin later in the story, since the romance was poorly contrived anyway. The tidbits about the main character's rules and compulsive nature could have been covered in-story or through unfolded backstory, as could the romance element.
I watch stories, not movies (and that, rarely); nevertheless, I looked forward to American Hustle not for it's story but because of actors and a director I respect, plus it has over 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is usually a promising factor.
And while the movie was technically well done all around, I could not enjoy it for a basic story-level reason: a general lack of characters to care about.
Other than Jeremy Renner's character, there are no heroes in the movie—I don't mean a classic hero, but someone to care for, someone trying to do something good or respectable. I noted a few surface-level good intention, always masking some deeper narcissism or corruption.
It's interesting to note how even an unlikable character like Sherlock can draw us in so long as we believe they have nobility and loyalty to their friends. Contrast that with Walter White of Breaking Bad—an overall likable character for several seasons who ultimately loses the viewers respect when he finally admits he did it all for the power, not for his family as he had claimed all along.
(Now, I will note a little redemption when a few of the characters changed their ways in the end, but the movie had built up so much apathy in me, that the ending was dulled by that point. The movie did try to show them progressing towards this end, but it failed in a too-little sense.)
So a technically brilliant and well acted movie with otherwise strong story elements and top notch story construction can leave a viewer apathetic simply because there was no one to care for? Absolutely.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.