When I draft a scene, the initial result is often what writers call, “Talking heads in a white room.” I hear the scene first: What are the characters saying? What are the ambient sounds? Are the birdies tweeting as harbingers of budding attraction, or is conversation impeded by somebody doing a bad job of minor scales on the clarinet two rooms away?
I will read over the scene before I close the document and leave myself a note: Where are these people, Grace? What time of day? SETTING, please. The next morning, I begin by buffing yesterday’s new words and that’s when I focus on setting.
Setting matters. Setting can be full of micro-symbols (cooing doves), foreshadowing (why minor scales, and is there any sneakier instrument than the clarinet?), or create conflict. Is Lord Hopeless trying to propose while a marching band goes by? Is Miss Villainous pouring lies into Our Hero’s ear in the same beautiful lakeside folly where he first kissed Our Heroine three scenes ago?
Readers are mighty smart, and they pick up on all those cues.
After lacing in some setting and symbolism for once this week’s scenes, I bethought myself about the settings in my life.
I love to be home. It’s my favorite place in the whole world, though my house is more quirky than lovely. And yet, I rarely get my best writing ideas at home. My happy place for plotting is behind the wheel of my car. I associate my car with safety (hard to flee a natural disaster on foot), mobility, independence, purpose, competence… all good things. I’ve driven every major east-west interstate in the country, and invariably, I did that driving in silence.
I can think in the car, My mundane burdens–do I have enough cat food? Did I pay the power bill?–don’t stare at me from the corners of the room, and neither do the dust bunnies and other distractions.
When prisons start showing nature movies in the gym, the incidents of violence go down. The side of a prison that has windows will be less violent than the side that does not. Patients in hospital rooms with windows heal faster and with fewer complications than patients in rooms without windows. Even being able to SEE somewhere else–a different setting–has a beneficial effect on us. (Another reason that setting matters–readers get an imaginary glimpse of somewhere else.)
My theory is that we were hunter/gathers for much, much longer than we’ve been anything else, and we’re predisposed to benefit from regular changes of scene. We do better for wandering around a bit, and exploring the occasional detour. Since the pandemic forced us to huddle at home for three years, anxiety diagnoses have gone up 25%. Not a straight line correlation, but might be something causal in the mix.
Hence, my question: How, when, and why do you change scenes?