As readers, we tend to take for granted the writer’s skill, but when your heart starts pounding, and in your mind’s eye you see vivid colors and feel the wind, you are experiencing the writer’s skill in creating a world. You’re lost in a story and stop noticing the passage of time, a car honking outside, or a barking dog. The author succeeded in connecting her imagery and language and feelings with your emotions, bringing you into what John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction calls “The fictional dream.” He said that if we write well, we spin the reader into a dream they don’t want to fall out of, we weave the reader into a kind of hypnotic trance.
The clue to this magic: writing great scenes that transport the reader away from current reality. Writing a good scene that brings the reader into the world of the story creates a psychological and physical experience. The writer is using language and details that trick your brain into being transported in time and place. You enter the hypnotic experience that being lost in a book creates.
Sensual details translate your experience to the reader. When you write, imagine the moments in your story, seeing, hearing, feeling that moment. In every scene you’re in a specific place and time, it’s literally a moment sliced from time whether you’re writing fiction or memoir. Readers need to be grounded in physicality, they need to feel where you are, what you’re doing or what your characters are doing, and experience that moment, and the next and the next.
Ingredients for a good scene
- Setting: a specific place in the world, a town, a building, a room, a place in nature.
- A particular time and the narrator’s age. We look at the world through different eyes depending on our point of view and experiences.
- Sensual details: description, the look of things. Paint a picture with your words, give us colors, shapes, the location of things in the world. A brown windswept world is a different world than a green one with pink, yellow and blue flowers. Note how you felt as you read those descriptions—it just takes a few words to convey a sense of mood and feeling.
- Include other sensual details: Smell, sound, texture, taste. Weave these together in a scene; it’s the way our bodies experience the world. Research shows that taste is one of the most powerful forms of memory. In every moment, we are surrounded by sounds, smells, and texture though we may not be aware of it. When we write we slow down our memory and imagination enough to recall and include them in a scene.
- Dialogue—not every scene has dialogue, but it’s a way to immediately create character. When someone opens their mouth, the things they say, their tone, choice of words, and attitude are immediately evident. We “get” who they are. When you’re writing memoir, you approximate the dialogue, since you weren’t carrying a tape recorder when you were nine years old, basing the dialogue on the emotional tone of the moment.
- What is the significance of the scene? A scene is included in a story for a reason—either there is some kind of change or conflict, opposing desires, or a chance to inhabit the situation and world of the characters more fully.
- Another tool is narration. The narrator of the story is presenting his/her point of view, and also guiding the reader through the story. Narration is a time for reflection, particularly important in memoir.
When you imagine sensual details, certain areas of your brain light up—this has been proven with MRI imagery. Imagine tasting an orange: feel the roughness of the peel, the first burst of aroma as you open the orange. You see the orange color, your mind is recounting all your experiences with an orange. You imagine the tart sweetness of the orange, and your body reacts to imagining the orange. This is the kind of experience you create for your reader.
Example of scenes
A flat scene that only tells, does not show:
“We went to the store to get the wedding dress, and then out for coffee afterward. It was a nice afternoon.”
We don’t know the narrator’s reaction to getting the dress, the context in which this is happening, or what “nice afternoon” means, and the reader does not experience anything with flat writing. The narrator needs to say more about what is happening and show it.
“After we made our selection, we decided to celebrate Laura’s having found the perfect dress to marry the man she’d lost track of so many years ago. On Smith Street, not far from the dress store, we found the Little Mermaid Bar, where we ordered the best margaritas I’d ever had in my life. The sun-dappled trees and the soft southern breeze, the way the drinks softened our bones, and the feeling that the past had finally been made right, came together to create a moment I knew we’d always remember.”
Once you know the secret of good scenes, you’ll notice them everywhere—in the books you’re reading, the way movies drop you into world quickly and keep you in the dream of the story, and you’ll notice too when you are bored and or can’t quite get into a story. That means the writer needed to do more to keep you engaged.
FREE WEBINAR THIS WEEK: Join Brooke and I this Thursday, June 30, for a free webinar to learn more about how to wow readers with your scenes. REGISTER HERE.