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.
I wrote recently about how some writers don't understand Superman's true weaknesses, but I think there is another flaw in the Superman mythos—just not in the traditional sense. The flaw is in his villains. Who do we have: beings like Lex Luthor, Metallo, Zod, Darkseid, Brainiac and Bizarro?
While some act as a mirror to the hero—and villains work best as mirrors and foils—they do so in comical ways. Their motivations are greed, hate, revenge and a lust for power and control. Who cares. They even go after Superman in less-than-creative ways.
(Side-note: perhaps the single exception is Mr. Mxyzptlk, who began with cartoonish designs on conquering the world merely because of a whim. Those devolved into just tormenting Superman for fun. But Alan Moore changed that with the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Storyline. Here, a childish naiveté has him experimenting with a spectrum of moralities until he lands on nightmarish evil, which manifests in truly interesting ways. )
Batman, on the other hand, has a more interesting gallery of villains to explore: Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Riddler, Hush, Scarecrow, and Bane. These guys explore humanity and Batman through their very existence. Many of them exhibit stories of self-inflicted tragedy-turned-insanity, and offer interesting studies into the dark side of humanity. There are arguments that few of them have the kind of clinical insanity that would qualify for a legal defense, but they glow with a rainbow of psychosis, obsessive compulsions, and dissociative identity disorder. (Two-Face rarely switches personality, but he is obsessive about letting a coin make decisions between good and evil—at times, he slips into a truly dissociative state. The Riddler struggles to not leave a riddle, but he cannot, even though he knows it always turns self-defeating.) And all of these typically call back to some tragedy.
Of themselves, they can be mildly interesting, but the real interest is what they say about the Dark Knight himself. There are moments where Batman notes the similarity between himself and his villains. Batman is loaded with psychological questions about PTSD, obsession and delusion. He has noted that he didn't become Batman because of his parent's murders, but that the event shaped him into the hero rather than yet-another Gotham villain—but the seeds of crazy were there simply because that is what Gotham does to people. Deep down, everyone there is crazy. Arkham Asylum is just a magnifying glass for what the city itself offers. And some writers have even suggested that Metropolis and Gotham are just caricatures of New York City's awe-inspiring and ugly sides—so even the settings reflect the characters.
Where Superman is a boy scout whose villains press him to find creative ways to avoid moral gray areas, they are often flat cutout characters like the Man of Steel himself. Batman is a traumatized, obsessive-compulsive anti-hero whose villains reflect his obsessive, delusional, dark path.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.