Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Workshop: Painting a Scene

By Lazette Gifford
2006,
Lazette Gifford


Part One:  The Undercoat

Most often when we write the description of a scene we use broad strokes, covering the word canvas with generalizations that set the reader in the right frame of mind, and give them a reference point to view the action.  Sometimes that's even enough.

The rain fell relentlessly, sending small rivulets of water down the walls of Old Town, and gathering in a muddy slough along the curbs.  The sun, nearly down, cast shadows across the alley as Bailey stood at the edge of the building and watched for his contact.

This is the undercoat.  It gives the bare necessity of description so that a reader would need to experience the surroundings, but the details are limited.

Your Turn:

Go to the nearest window and look out while you count to ten. Afterwards, return to your computer and write a single paragraph of what you saw.  Don't try for too many details.  This should be just enough to cue the reader about the basics of the scene.

Part Two: The Second Coat

If a character were walking along a street, hurrying out of the rain, the details that I gave in the first part would likely be enough. Giving too much detail can slow the story down, and that, in turn, makes it feel as though the character is not hurrying.  Match your description to your mood; someone hurrying doesn't see a wealth of detail.

But in my paragraph, Bailey is waiting for someone.  In that case, he's likely to notice more detail of his surroundings.

 The rain fell relentlessly, sending small rivulets of water down the walls of Old Town, and gathering in a muddy slough along the curbs.  The smell of wet cement mingled with the scent of the fish fry place two doors behind him, and laughter barked from the tavern across the street. 

Bailey pulled his trench coat collar up trying to stop the water from gathering at his neck and running down his back.   The sun, nearly down, cast shadows across the alley.  Neon lights flickered to life as he stood at the edge of the building and anxiously watched for his contact.

This combines not only the setting, but some information processed by Bailey -- it puts him in the scene and allows us to look at it through his eyes.

Your Turn:

Take the scene you previously wrote and expand on it in a way that would make it interesting to a story.  You can add a character, add buildings, fields, a river -- whatever you want to the setting that may not be in the original scene, or you can go back to the window and note more details that you didn't use before. 

Part Three:  The Details

The previous section added more details and under some circumstances this might again be enough.  However, you can still add at least one more layer of information -- the more minute details of the world.   

The rain fell relentlessly, sending small rivulets of water down the blue and white pealing-paint walls of Old Town, giving the buildings a look of oozing sores.  The water rushed across the debris-strewn and cracked sidewalk, gathering in a dark, muddy slough along the crumbling curbs.  The tangy smell of wet cement mingled with the inviting scent of the fish fry place two doors behind him, and laughter barked from the brightly lit tavern across the street... but no one else came out into the rain. 

Bailey tugged the ragged collar of his trench coat up, vainly trying to stop the water from gathering at his neck and running down his back.   The sun, nearly down, cast ebony shadows across the alley.  Garish neon lights flickered on in unnatural glowing greens and crimson reds, mirrored in the moving water and growing puddles.  Bailey stepped back from the illumination and stood in the darker shadows at the edge of the building, anxiously watching for his contact.

In this final version I've added in details that only someone looking closely would notice -- someone standing in a place who has time to uses his senses, or who knows the area so well that he's built up an accumulation of sensory data and can share it.

Your Turn:

Add one more layer of sensory information to your scene.  Don't limit it to sight and sound -- taste, smell and touch are just as important in some scenes.  In this case let your imagination play with the setting, and even if it isn't something specifically in your original scene, add in things that would make it more interesting.

 

Remember when you are painting a scene to make the level of detail correspond to what your character has time to see.  Someone running through the dark, rainy night is apt to sense the more jarring aspects -- the bright neon lights, the barking laughter.

Choose details with care, and always remember that you are painting a picture for your readers, so give them the details that will help them see what you see in your mind.