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Setting-Building Techniques

Posted on Jun 10, 2015 by The Creascriptum Publishing House

As seen in memorable works of fiction and best-sellers

Last week, the Creascriptum review team received “Hush, Hush” - a marvellously-rendered screenplay written by American writer Stephanie Gaudinier. The 740 words script unfolds the tragedy of a young woman, Serenity, who struggles to overcome her horrendous past, only to ultimately embrace madness and suicide.

The screenplay uses but minimal dialogue to unfold its threads, yet its Exposition-building structure alluded to the Psychedelic Movement of the early ‘70s. What we found in “Hush, Hush” was a note of greatness we commonly associate with best-selling books – all embedded in this New Age screenplay’s SETTING.

Today’s bookstores are full of books exhibiting drawn-out exposes, which rant and rave about the intricate details of an otherwise flat setting, foreshadowing the introduction of an equally flat protagonist. We decided to look at this screenplay's setting-crafting to exemplify not just good, but memorable novel writing.

When it comes to memorable writing that makes the shelf, today’s novelists could learn a thing or two about screenplay settings-building techniques. Why? Because the setting shouldn’t act as the empty-shell location the character fills in. The setting should be alive. It does not introduce the character but BUILDS it. It does not just shelter the overall theme, but CREATES it. Whether you are writing a novel, a novella or a short-story, your Setting needs to:

  • Establish mood
  • Build character
  • Introduce the main theme

To exemplify today’s setting-building technique, we used only fragments of the original “Hush, Hush” script.

INT. BATHROOM - DAY

A pair of FEMALE HANDS turn on the sink, staining the handles of faucet with blood. The hands begin to viciously scrub the blood off them. The sink swirls, diluted blood flows down the drain. A hand grabs nearby soap and begins scrubbing again. The soap, which is now also covered in blood, is replaced and the hands rinse the remaining blood off.

In the opening of “Hush, Hush”, the author's setting generates maximum intrigue and is very revealing of its protagonist. Who is the woman? Why are her hands stained in blood? Is it her blood or someone else’s? Her fumbling with the soap suggests nerves, or at least uneasiness. Why is she uneasy? The following fragment shows how the camera point of view is moving, gradually unfolding new protagonist details, new information and new characters:

The camera pans up to reveal the face of a young woman SERENITY, (20s) tall and pale. She stares into the mirror studying her reflection. After a few moments pass she grabs a towel for her hands and leaves the bathroom. As she walks away the face of an OLDER MAN (40s) appears in the mirror.

In this screenplay, S. Gaudinier uses an advanced settings-building technique commonly seen in short-stories and novellas: the mirror-technique. It is roughly the same technique we see in books who sold millions of copies, such as “Tarzan”, “Lolita”, “The Great Gatsby”, “The Godfather” or “The Hunger Games”, to name a few.

What is the mirror technique?

The name for this settings building method derives from the way we perceive reality when beholding a mirror: sometimes inverted, sometimes distorted, and more often than not, incomplete. This technique builds a Setting based only on “fragments”, instead of a full-fledged description. It rather “shows” instead of “telling”. It “teases” us by letting on bits and pieces the reader is left to string together and wonder about, rather than be given the sum of its parts. Once again, the screenplay “Hush, Hush” makes the most of this extraordinary technique:

INT. BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS

Serenity sits on her bed and buries her face in her hands. They are still stained with blood. In front of her is largemirror with several other smaller mirrors on either side of it. Her reflection is in all of them. As she looks up the images in the mirrors change. Serenity gets up and looks at the smallest mirror.

SMALLEST MIRROR - SERENITY’S P.O.V.

A LITTLE GIRL is at a birthday party surrounded by her friends and family. She is laughing and eating cake. GRANT (30s), kneels down next to the little girl and hands her a present.

RETURN TO SCENE

Serenity reaches out and touches the mirror where Grant is standing. She smiles and the images fades.

MEDIUM SIZED MIRROR - SERENITY’S P.O.V.

The little girl appears again but this time she is dressed in black, holding a WOMAN’S hand. They stand in front of a tombstone that reads BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER. The image fades in an instant and the face of the Older Man appears again.

The mirrors are used to reveal the woman’s past; reveal the skeletons in her closet; her haunting inner-demons, yet they do so much more. They use flashbacks to reveal her memories, hence bringing her past struggles into her present. They use stream of consciousness, trying to replicate how thoughts form and flow, at times chaotically. They use symbolism (her father’s tombstone) to foreshadow her imminent demise. Not only do the mirrors build the woman’s character, but they enhance the plotline’s theme. Imagine this technique used in today’s novels. It could be that a protagonist sees her reflected image in the brand-new necklace she received for her 16th birthday, and that the reflection in the necklace suddenly distorts to reveal a horrific event of her past. 

RETURN TO SCENE

Serenity, now in a fetal like position, takes her shoe off and tosses it at the mirror, trying to break it but it barely scuffs the surface. She turns away from the larger mirror but now all the mirrors are playing the same image. She can’t escape it. She becomes frozen in place, all she can do is watch.

LARGE MIRROR - SERENITY’S P.O.V.

The Older Man is now on top of the girl. She has tears streaming down her face but doesn’t move a muscle. The image fades and returns quickly with the young girl sitting on the edge of the bed, blankly staring at the mirror.

What is most astonishing about the play is the way the camera’s point of view moves, creating or distorting focus. No wonder adventure-packed novels such as “James Bond”, “Nancy Drew” or “Fight Club” have made the most of movie-making techniques such as camera-angle and drag-along point of view. Whenever writing, try to imagine a cameramen and his camera trying to “capture” the most of the scene. He may pan the lens in such a way that he creates “focus” on a character, a detail or a scene, or he may zoom out to a bird-eye view, to capture the entireness of a scene (for example, the aftermath of bombing in a warzone).

If you are writing the scene, then you are holding the camera. Notice how the pace intensifies throughout the play. Serenity’s madness engorges with every scene, the camera flashes more and more images turning up on mirrors, reflecting her past. Eventually, her madness climatically peaks in what we call “the lowest point”, symbolically emphasized by the character’s fetal position (birth but also death).

RETURN TO SCENE

Serenity is now sitting on the edge of the bed, blankly staring at the mirror, tears rolling down her cheek. Grant enters the bedroom, kneels down and wipes the tears from her face.

Blood trickles down her hand. Grant uses the bed sheets to wipe her wrist clean.

GRANT

It’s all over now. You’re safe with me.

MIRRORS - SERENITY’S P.O.V.
The mirrors show no reflections.
RETURN TO SCENE
The room is empty.

FADE TO BLACK

The pace quiets down as the camera angle changes to bird-eye view, where we get to see the “aftermath” of Serenity’s struggles. Her demons have finally claimed her. S. Gaudinier concludes “Hush, Hush” with almost surgical symmetry. The techniques she uses unravel excellent, deep-cutting writing, revealing many characteristics we encounter in all the widely-consumed best-selling stories of worldwide literature. If you watch closely, you will discover many of these widely-published writers have received some amount of mentorship before making the shelves of literary greatness. Even today, their “memorable writing” knowhow was and often still is kept within the few.

Our Publishing House's team of international Writers, Editors and Publishers is dedicated to the study of but the greatest, most appealing stories of literary history. What makes a piece of writing truly memorable? What makes it unforgettable? What particular techniques and best practices do we encounter in the writing of the most bought authors of the age?

Creascriptum answers precisely such questions through its line of Creative Writing publications. From beginner level to advanced, our coursebooks aim to teach and textually exemplify only the most practical methods, techniques and applies used by best-selling authors. Today’s mirror technique, along so many others, can dramatically improve the way you tell your story.

The better you tell it, the more readers you engage. To write memorably is to be ever-lasting.

We thank you kindly for reading our review of Stephanie Gaudinier’s striking “Hush, Hush”. Talented, isn’t she? Our Screenplay author welcomes further reviews and impressions on her e-mail address: stephanie@gaudinier.com or by calling: 914-265-0105.

If you found this article useful, share. If you wish to learn to write memorably and exceptionally, our Creative Writing Coursebooks take pride in providing the ultimate learning resource.

If you need help with editing your manuscripts, our publishing team rests humbly at your service, so make sure you drop us a line at contact@creascriptum.com

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