I have the worst ear for criticism; even when I have created a stage set I like, I always hear the woman in the back of the dress circle who says she doesn’t like blue. ~Cecil Beaton
Now that we have our characters all dressed up and twirling a fascinating prop, why aren’t they leaping from the page? Because they need a stage, one that has been carefully and thoughtfully set with a three-dimensional arrangement of scenery and properties. Story characters, like novice actors, need the advantage of having a place to go and the conflict the set can provide once they get there.
Stage sets are more than incidental eye candy for the audience. Whether the set boasts an opera house complete with a falling chandelier (Phantom), or a sparse courthouse deliberation room set with only a conference table and a few chairs (Twelve Angry Men), these set pieces create the illusion of defined spaces. A well-designed set is more than a backdrop; it expresses the show’s concept. Failure to express a story’s concept is the death of that story. Writers must create three-dimensional set pieces in the minds of the reader, pieces that express the story’s concept, but how?
In Diane Setterfield’s Thriteenth Tale, she takes a moment and sets the stage for Margaret’s first entrance. Here’s what the audience sees when the lights come up on Act I:
“Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat. Through the glass in the door it cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle, about to turn the key in the door, that I first saw the letter.”
Immediately the reader assembles these snippets of description and builds a set, a real place in their mind for this character to perform. The stairs in my mind may be different than yours, but they’re real stairs I can see. My stairs are damp, maybe even a little slick, and I can hear the clack of Margaret’s heels as trudges toward the door.
“Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter.”
So when Margaret sinks onto the top stair to read her letter, the set I’ve built in my mind helps me see the action. But an added benefit to creating an incredible mental setting is the awakening of other sensory reactions in me as a reader. I can feel the hardness of the stairs since I mentally chose cobblestone. I also can feel the cold and dampness seeping through Margaret’s coat. And since I can see the dreary darkness of the set, I can feel the curiosity that has possessed Margaret and caused her to ignore the discomfort. Conflict I can see.
Any setting can potentially acquire this vividness and when it does…so does your character.