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.