Setting the scene

Even with a minimal set, the description is important. As is the sofa.

It’s dark. There’s just the rustle of whispered conversation in the auditorium. Then the lights come up and the curtain swishes aside to reveal….What? That’s a pretty big question, and one that’s been very prominent this week.

Reviewing scripts for my publisher has kept me busy for the last three years, at approximately eight scripts a week. At such a volume of material, it’s inevitable that a pattern of errors or common mistakes should emerge, and this week the top offender seems to be a lack of description.

It’s something that’s easy to excuse. The playwright sits at home, imagining their play running on the stage. They concentrate on the characters, on the dialogue, but probably have a vision of the staging too. The thing is, they don’t want to be too proscriptive : if you say “There must be entrances here, here and here, and the heroine must recline on this chaise longue here…” aren’t  you restricting the Director’s creativity? Isn’t it better to just say “Curtains open on a living room” and describe the characters coming and going?

Well, no. If you’re hoping to sell your script, you should be aiming for your writing to conjure up an image in the prospective director’s mind. To do that, you need to describe each set at the top of the scene. That way the director knows what the room looks like as the characters move around it. It doesn’t matter that the director is envisioning a blue sofa instead of a paisley one. It doesn’t matter that he/she thinks a drinks cabinet is six feet tall instead of a little cupboard. What’s important is that when he/she reads ‘Charlie crosses to the sofa” it isn’t the first time the sofa has been mentioned. This is important because up until that moment the reader will have a scene in their heads. You mention, perhaps, a study. For me, that means a chair or two and a desk for working at. I’ll also imagine oak panelled walls. Sorry, can’t help myself*. Anyway, my personal view of a study doesn’t include a sofa. So, when I read that Charlie crosses to a sofa, the sofa appears BING! in the middle of my imaginary study. It’s annoying and surprising. You don’t want someone reading your script to be annoyed.

“But what about the stifled creativity?” you cry. Fair point. This is, indeed a tightrope you have to walk. Your first step here is creating a vision in the reader’s head that means they can see what YOU saw when you were writing the play. They don’t have to get every nuance, but they should understand the physical reality of the world you have built. Their challenge is to translate that vision into the performance space they have. So, in writing for the community theatre where facilities are often more limited, you may want to restrict the number of trapdoors you mention in the stage, or flying entrances, or holographic monsters. But don’t skimp on the description – tell the reader what you see, and do it at the top of the scene so they start with the correct picture in their heads.

*In case you’re wondering, my study doesn’t have oak panelled walls. They’re a kind of yucky green colour. There’s no sofa either.

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4 responses to “Setting the scene

  1. I stand by my reply; I knew I’d disagree with your comment 🙂 Very interesting point

  2. With the plethora of scripts you’re reading you could even start your own social media blog for playwrights! Tag team with Kristen Lamb?

  3. The Compulsive Writer

    What? No oak paneled walls?

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