The Scene-tific Method

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a graduate student trying to earn a PhD. During my studies I discovered something very telling about my character:

I am an empiricist.

I discovered that I could never truly comprehend an advanced theoretical discussion without grounding it in an observable environment. Equations and symbols meant nothing to me unless I could take them out of the sterile world of theory and dump a whole bunch of real numbers on top of them. Then I could sit back and watch what happens. If I could see the mechanics in action, I’d get it. If I couldn’t, I didn’t. My fellow students at the time thought I was nuts. I thought they were nuts.

They were probably right. I never did get that PhD.

Turns out I have the same issue when dealing with my writing style. When I write dialogue, I often find myself mumbling the words of each character while I’m writing them, complete with the proper accents and inflections. If I can hear it, I know if it’s right or wrong. Just seeing the words on the page doesn’t often work for me. When I write action sequences, my hands are flapping and my limbs are tensing and twitching as I mentally perform the same actions I’m choreographing for my characters. At group writing events, people will often see me bury my face in my hands, looking like I’m in agony. I’m not. I’m struggling to force my brain to accept an abstraction instead of leaping from my chair and dancing around the room like an idiot to act out a scene or converse with my imaginary cast of characters.

There’s a reason I do my best writing at home by myself.

So, how does my empirical approach affect the crafting of scenes?

Scenes are no different. When I create a decrepit mansion, or a high-tech science lab, or subterranean caves on an alien world, I need to project myself into that space in order to write about it with any sense of realism. If I can really be there in my mind, then I may just have a chance of transporting my reader to the same place.

I start by trying to focus on first impressions: do I shiver in the bitter chill of wind whipping through the trees? Is there a sweet smell of perfume that tickles my nose? Does the floor’s plush carpet absorb my footsteps? Can I hear water dripping in the distance somewhere?

Next I think about the features that my mind’s eye occupied. What’s special and interesting? Is it the decoration covering the walls? The height of the ceiling? Is the space inviting, or awe-inspiring, or terrifying? What one aspect of the scene would someone remember long after they’d left the space?

Throughout the process of scene creation, I worry about mechanics. After all, scenes are primarily just backdrops for the interesting things the characters are doing. Does the space allow them to perform necessary activities? Can everyone fit? Do they have to worry about eavesdroppers or security cameras? Could they walk from one place to another, or do they need conveyance? What kind of apparel is suitable for the scenario?

Some aspects of scene creation need to be told. Many can be expressed through the actions and words of the characters. And striking the balance between showing and telling scene details has always been a challenge for me. When I think about books that I enjoy, there’s always a healthy mix of both.

My favorite books take things one step further, by leaving just a little bit out. I’m far from being a fashionista, but I love this quote from Coco Chanel: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I find that good authors do exactly the same thing. They provide a sketch of a scene, with just enough foundation to frame the action of the moment, but they leave the details up to the reader’s imagination. Personally, this mixture of detail and absence engages my mind’s eye, as the empiricist in me leaps into the scene to fill in the gaps. And I love filling in the gaps. It’s why I would rather read a good book instead of watching a movie or a television show. Books give me the opportunity to collaborate with the author, and create something unique that no one else has ever seen or experienced.

Can I eventually succeed in providing the same experience for my readers? I’m not sure. The empiricist in me wants to map every aspect of my stories in absolute detail. Flood the theory with real numbers and leave nothing to chance. But the reader in me wants to only provide a trickle of concrete details and leave the rest up to the imagination. Striking that balance is going to be a tough trick. But I look forward to perpetually trying to make it work.

5 Comments

  • dave says:

    Well, from what I’ve read of your stuff, you do already strike a really good balance. I think that the description and evocation is probably the strongest thing about your writing. It always reminds me of what I think of as the atmospherists. Henry Miller, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and since you introduced me to him: China Mieville. These are all writers that make me see and feel and know a place or thing without ever noticing that they’re describing it.

  • Kaylie K says:

    In my younger days, one of my friends and I used to “act out” stories. We made up characters and a story line, and would literally take on those roles. A role-playing per say, of course, being a pre-teen at the time, it was all probably just an elaborate game of house. We would pick out our favorite fictional worlds, and insert ourselves into them. As we got older, eventually those same plays that we would act out eventually made it to paper. So in a way, it’s exactly what we experienced, and in writing those it was so easy to find the right dialouge and the right flow of things.
    I think acting out your scenes, or at least being able to solidly visualize them, does help. I also have to agree with the fact that there has to be a balance between seeing the scene and describing it in such a way the the reader can fill in the gaps. Becuase it is true that different readers will interpret a scene in different ways. And I would never want to take that interpretation away, because for me, it’s that interpretation that makes the story come alive.
    I haven’t read much of your work, but I do know that just understanding that is a huge step into actually making it happen.

  • Andrew says:

    I like to give lots of details about my characters’ physical features, but tend to leave the environment free and clear for the reader to fill how they want. If the character touches, smells, or specifically looks at an object then I’ll go into the details of that object. If I had to give any reasons why, then I’d probably say that it’s because, like you, I try to see through my character’s eyes. I don’t go jumping around or anything, but I do try to put myself into their shoes.

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