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Making Sense Of A Scene: The Power of 3

September 25, 2018

In order to tell a story effectively a writer must make the reader feel he or she is part of a scene as it unfolds. Done properly, the reader will experience the mood, tone, and aesthetics of the narrative right alongside the characters. More often than not this is a deceptively difficult task to pull off. There is an art to penning an engaging scene description, and if you're not careful with your literary brushstrokes you could end up splashing in chunks of unnecessary and boring description. Renown Western and Crime author Elmore Leonard often said he would not write long, descriptive passages in his stories because he believed the reader would skip over them anyway. Mr. Leonard was right. If not skip over them, rush through them with glazed eyes, searching for the next bit of engaging character dialog or narrative action.

 

It's easy to overdo it. Every writer wants to thoroughly describe his setting, or share the breadth of her knowledge in a subject she has spent long hours researching. Resist the urge. Always keep in mind the story is the thing. Anything that detracts from its forward momentum must be cut out like a cancer. Verbose, superfluous lines of description are like malignant tumors. Leave them in and they could metastasize in the body of the story, causing it to go terminal. But there is a cure, almost like magic.

 

Anyone who grew up in the 70's and 80's will tell you they learned a lot from the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. One of my favorites is the "Three Is A Magic Number" episode.

While explaining the mathematical properties of the number 3, this catchy little tune also reveals the perfect balance this numeral possesses. The past, the present, and the future. Faith, hope, and charity. The heart and the brain and the body. It takes 3 legs to make a tripod, a stable surface. Songwriter Bob Dorough nailed it. Three is the perfect number to succinctly capture the essence of a subject. And 3 is the perfect number to describe a scene in a story.

 

I refer now to the human senses. Everybody knows there are 5: Sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. I submit that any scene in any story can be brought to life by describing 3 sensory elements germane to the setting. I'll call it Sensory Triangulation, although I can't say for certain I invented that term. For an example of what I'm talking about, let's imagine a scene in a suspense novel where the protagonist detective is meeting a shadowy contact at a cider mill in the fall. The setting might be described like this ...

 

Dusk arrived and Detective Cheney walked through the entry gate with a flow of people. Not certain if Benny had already arrived, Cheney staked out a spot at the corner of the weathered grist mill so he could watch both the gravel parking lot and a bonfire pit at the edge of the apple orchard. The fire in the pit crackled against the night chill and sent a hazy aroma of burning oak into the air. The smell reminded Cheney of being a kid, going to mills like this with his parents during their happier years together, scarfing down cider and doughnuts. He wasn't so much into doughnuts anymore, but the sting of the cold on his hands and cheeks made him want to grab a hot cup of coffee from inside the mill. Why did Benny want to meet here? Did he have fond childhood memories of places like this too, or did he like the creepy atmosphere of the haunted corn maze across the road?

 

Note how Cheney's senses bring life to the scene. They add depth to the description, but they also lead to a character revelation from Cheney's childhood. This is a more immersive scene-describing approach than to simply list a line-by-line inventory of the mill; how old it is, how many trees in the orchard, what direction their rows are aligned with, how much a dozen doughnuts cost. None of this is relevant to the story. But the crackle of the bonfire, the smell of the smoke, and the sting of the cold on Cheney's skin triangulates the reader's sensory system and pulls him into the scene.

 

I subtitled this post "The Power of 3" as opposed to the "Rule of 3" for a reason. Picking 3 relevant senses to describe a scene is a good starting point, but 4 or all 5 can be used as well, as long as you're certain they're all needed to facilitate story momentum. And remember Elmore Leonard. Leave out the stuff the reader will skip. It it isn't relevant to the story or character, leave it out. 

 

Until next time ...

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