Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tip # 17: Setting the Scene

By Anant Mathur (January 13, 2011)

It’s a common mistake that most writers make, they get so drawn in by the dialogue of a scene that they forget to set the scene, leaving the reader to wonder what’s going on?

It is just as important to have details in a scene as it is to have character and dialogue. Before you can successfully write a scene you must learn everything about the environment. Feel what the scene is: what are the sights, sounds and smells of the surroundings and where are they coming from. Who’s there, what are they doing and how does all this affect your character. Once you take all this in, you’re ready to tell your reader what’s there. But don’t just describe what’s there, relate it to your character, present it through his/her eyes. When you’re able to do this you are all set to add dialogue to the scene.

Here’s an example from the opening scene of the film Back to the Future where we are introduced to the main character and a new location:

We see Doc Brown's lab filled with clocks over the credits. Each clock is set to exactly the same time. They are also all 25 minutes slow. Newspaper clippings on a bulletin board with the headlines: “Brown estate sold to developers. Bankrupt inventor sells off 135 prime acres” and “Brown mansion destroyed.” Below them, photographs of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin rest next to doc’s bed. Suddenly the TV and radio turn on.

Radio Advert: (v.o)
October is inventory time. So right now, Statler Toyota is making the best deals of the year on all 1985 model Toyotas. You won't find a better car with a better price with better service anywhere in Hill Valley...

TV Newsreader:
...the Senate is expected to vote on this today. In other news, officials at The Pacific Nuclear Research Facility have denied the rumour that the case of missing plutonium was in fact stolen from their vault two weeks ago. A Libyan terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the alleged theft, however, the officials now infer the credence to a simple clerical error. The FBI...

A robot tin opener opens a tin of dog food and empties the contents into a dog food bowl marked "Einstein". The pile is high, it is clear that Einstein has not touched this food for a few days.

The front door opens, and MARTY MCFLY, 17, walks in. We don't see his face just yet though.

Hey, Doc?

He puts the key back under the mat.

Doc. Hello, anybody home? Einstein, come here, boy.

Marty whistles.

What's going on? Wha- Aw, God. Aw, Jesus. That's disgusting. Where the hell is everybody?

Marty puts down his skateboard and it rolls along the floor to hit a box under the table - marked "Plutonium"! Marty is unaware of this. He plugs his electric guitar into Doc's amplifier. He strikes a string, and the noise causes the amplifier to break. The force from this pushes Marty backwards, and he crashes into one of Doc's bookcases, causing the books and papers on it to fall off and land on his head. Marty lifts up his sunglasses - now we finally see his whole face, and notice that he resembles Michael J Fox quite a lot!

Whoa, rock and roll.

If you dissect this scene you discover that the place belongs to an eccentric scientist who is inspired by Edison and Franklin. He’s obsessed with time and hasn’t been home for many days. From the newspaper clippings we know that the now bankrupt inventor was very wealthy at one time. His dog Einstein hasn’t touched his food in several days. We learn of Statler Toyota, the name Statler is important throughout the film and its sequels (when Marty picks up the newspaper from the garbage can to discover he's in 1955, it has an ad for Statler Studebaker because Toyota didn't exist in the 1950's. BTTF 2: In 2015, it was Statler Pontiac. BTTF 3: It's known as Honest Joe Statler's Fine Horses). We’re also told about the Lybians and a case of stole plutonium which seems to have ended up in doc’s place. We’re then introduced to the film’s main protagonist, a skateboarding teenager with interest in music, who doesn’t seem to be very techno savvy. This is an important scene because it not only introduces the main character but also sets up other scenes in the film.

If the writers of Back to the Future didn’t stop to set this scene, the details would be missing, leaving the audience confused, unsure of where the character is and unable to figure out why certain things are happening in the film.

The following scene from Back to the Future part 2 illustrates how a familiar setting can change:

Marty enters Courthouse Square. It's changed vastly. The Courthouse is still there, only it's now the Courthouse Mall. The clock is still at 10:04 though. Marty looks round. The road has "No Landing" painted on it. Flying cars are around and Marty can see the skyway from where he is standing. Just as when he first stepped into the square in 1955, he nearly gets hit by a car, so steps out of the way to let it pass. Looking at the Courthouse, he sees that instead of a car park, the central bit of the Square now has a pond and tropical plants. There is a man fishing there. Marty looks around again and sees the "on ramp" between road and skyway. Cars are both entering and exiting the skyway. Marty turns around. The Texaco station has also changed!!! It's now 2 levels - one for hover-converted vehicles and one for ground cars.

Computerised Voice: (v.o)
Welcome to Texaco. You can trust your car to the system with the star. Checking oil, checking landing gear.....

Marty looks over to the cinema. It's now called Holomax and Jaws 19 is showing, directed by Max Spielberg (Steven's real life son!!!). Marty looks away and a holo-shark comes out, creeping towards Marty. It's just about to "eat" him.


The shark then disappears. Marty gets up, he's receiving some very strange looks.

Shark still looks fake.

A holo-billboard in the background "starts".

Goldie Wilson III:
Hi friends, Goldie Wilson III for Wilson Hover-Conversion Systems.. You know, when my grandpa was mayor of Hill Valley, he had to worry about traffic problems. But now, you don't have to worry about traffic! I'll hover-convert your old road car into a skyway flyer. For only $39,999.95. So come on down and see me, Goldie Wilson III, at any one of our 29 convenient locations. Remember, keep 'em flying.

Marty sees an antiques store, Blast from the Past. He looks in the window. Inside are Grey's Sports Almanac 1950-2000, a Jaws Nintendo game, an old Apple Mac (circa 1984), a Roger Rabbit doll, a lava lamp, a Dustbuster, Perrier water bottles, a Super VHS video camera, a Walkman, Dragnet and Animal House videos, the political comedy album Trust Me and as an in-joke, Marty's shirt and jacket from Part 1. Marty walks into the Cafe 80's next door, where Lou's Cafe was in 1955.

When writing a story or a screenplay, writers must be aware of the details that scenes involve, not only does this help in creating a well developed story, it also provides a better cinematic experience for the audience.

© Anant Mathur. All Rights Reserved.

No comments: