On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #5: Black Box Theater

I recently read a manuscript in which two characters were described as being in a theater. A dialogue ensued and I visualized the duo sitting in the empty hall chatting. I was surprised when the writer mentioned someone nearby coughing. Suddenly, the hall was populated and I had to revise the picture in my head. A page later, I was informed that this pair was waiting in the wings to go onstage, that the cough had come from their stage manager who had the flu and that there were a lot of other folks coming and going backstage.

Have you ever read a scene like that? If so, how did it affect your reading experience?

Every piece of new information can be like a tiny electrical shock that forces the reader to reorient himself. As a result he can lose the sense of where he is, both in the characters’ world and in their conversation.

How could this scene be set up effectively?

One method would be exposition that explained where the characters were and who was with them.

But aren’t we supposed to avoid lumps of exposition aimed at setting scenery?

Generally speaking, yes, and there is a delicate balance between giving the reader enough information and giving her too much. The key is in carefully choosing what information you give.

Ask yourself: what cues will set this scene most effectively, and tell us important things about the characters?

Here’s an example:

“Did you see Susan today?”

“Today? No, why?” Tony peered across the stage to where a knot of actors assembled in the stage-left wings. He checked, again, to make sure the stunt pistol he needed for the upcoming scene was in his suit pocket.

“She’s dyed her hair pink,” Eric said. “She says because it’s your least favorite color.”

The reader knows immediately that the characters he’s eavesdropping on are actors waiting to go onstage in a play. Just the glance across the stage may be enough to allow the reader to visualize the place and a quick mention of the other actors populates the scene. The reader may also suspect, based on the dialogue, that Susan and Tony were a couple who split acrimoniously. Further you know that Susan is prone to impulsive behavior—and you haven’t even met her yet.

Exercise: Conceive of a scene in which you have two characters. They are thieves sneaking into a cathedral to steal a golden candle stand from the altar. Both are losing their courage and are urging each other on. They have no more than reached the altar and groped for the candle stand when they are caught!

If you choose to accept this challenge, write this short scene in such a way that the location and atmosphere, the intent and emotions of the characters are present.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #5: Black Box Theater — 3 Comments

  1. ‘You’re ALMOST positive?’ Jake whispered loudly and then gripped his companion by the throat and squeezed. ‘ALMOST! You were bloody CERTAIN before we broke in!’

    Mason shrugged himself free and coughed quietly. He looked across the lowly-lit sanctuary to where the high-altar sat beneath a beam of smoky sunlight. The cool air still held the sweet hint of incense and the word ‘certain’ seemed to sigh its way around the high, vaulted ceiling, like a captured dove hoping for escape.
    ‘I was a KID! It’s been ten years since I’ve been in here but back then all the choirboys KNEW it was gold and worth a fortune.’ He replied hoarsely and rubbed his throat.

    ‘So why would they leave the damn thing out on display like that?’ Jake nodded towards the altar and the huge engraved candle-stand that glowed a rich yellow in the last rays of the dying sun. ‘It’s because it’s probably brass, you moron. Brass… not gold!’

    Mason shook his head. ‘It’s gold. Father David once said so.’ He looked up at the figure of Jesus crucified upon the cross above the altar. ‘And it’s not locked away because Father David trusts his congregation. He trusts Him to watch out for the cathedral.’

    Jake followed his accomplice’s gaze. ‘Oh, give me a break.’ He said and slipped out of the darkened corner and approached the altar. ‘There’s only one way to find out if it’s gold or not.’ He said as he reached for the candle-stand with one hand and opened the flick-knife with his other.’

    ‘No, Jake. DON’T!’ Mason raised his voice slightly. ‘This ain’t right. Leave it. We’re gonna get caught, I’ve got a funny feeling.’ He shivered. ‘Perhaps it IS brass.’ But he knew that it wasn’t.

    The creaking that came from above them and the tiny fragments of plaster that fell like fine snow upon their shoulders froze them to the spot but it was when the voice of the statute said, ‘Welcome back, Mason. It’s been a long time,’ that both men dropped to their knees.

  2. Brilliant! That sound you hear is loud and sustained applause.

    This is a wonderful scene. Immediate, evocative, emotionally charged AND you set the scene without stopping to set the scene. We know who these guys are, what they’re doing and how they feel about it in one compact scene. This is what’s meant by showing not telling.

    May I use this in future workshops to illustrate this point?

    I have only one quibble and that’s with Mason’s use of the word “perhaps”. It sounds odd and formal in context with “This ain’t right.”

    Other than that — the crowd goes wild.


  3. Ooh! *blushes* thanks, Maya 🙂
    Glad you enjoyed it and sure, please use it if you wish.
    The ‘perhaps’ was suppose to give Mason a ‘get out’ without him losing face but I take on board what you’ve said.
    Looking forward to your next exercise 🙂