Writing and Shit – part 36 – The Haunted Scene, or Better than Movies

We’re going back to scenes. But by now you should be ahead of me. You should be thinking things like –

Mr But: A scene creates a gap.

Very good.

Mr But: But not all scenes create gaps. Surely some scenes fill them in.

Yes, they do. Concluding scenes fill gaps in, and also scenes which, by closing down this one gap open up two or three gaps elsewhere or later on.

I am wary of even calling them ‘scenes’, because to approach them too distinctly – as if you were writing scenes in a play or in a screenplay – may cause you to write them in a way that doesn’t fit with the flow of a story or a novel.

Between scenes in a play, it may be necessary for furniture to be removed or for a whole new set to drop down out of the ceiling on wires. Between scenes in a film, the entire cast may need to relocate from London to Iceland.

There is no equivalent to this in writing. No heavy lifting need ever be done. An expensive or epic background costs no more, in time and ink, than an impoverished or claustrophobic one.

Between scenes in a novel, there may be a comma.


Writing also has the advantage that it is far simpler to have a character in two places at once – one physical, one mental.

Here is a simple sentence, one you would hardly notice in a novel.

He walked down the street thinking of his sister.


He walked along, thinking of his sister.


As he walked down Hill Crescent, he thought about his sister.

Now, think about how much work a play or screenplay would have to do – how much preparation – in order to achieve the doubleness of this scene: action and memory, in the same stride.

At the very least, a film would need two scenes to set up this moment. And it would be impossible, without expositional dialogue between characters of a voiceover, to convey specifically that he was thinking of his sister without creating a visual tag that, within the language of the film, the viewer knows means the sister.

For example, in an earlier scene in the film, he and his sister – as children – joyously jump through the spray of a lawn sprinkler, watering the front garden of their parents’ house.

Other scenes intervene, the sister dies, and we join him walking down Hill Crescent where – because he has to, because this is the only way to signal to us what’s inside his head – he sees…

What does he see? If it’s just a house with a front garden that isn’t enough. There’s room for doubt. If he merely looks at a lawn, it’s not absolutely clear. There may have been grass elsewhere in the film. How about if he looks at a sprinkler but one that’s not spraying water? To me, that suggests he’s thinking about death just as much as he’s thinking specifically about happy times with his sister, when they were kids. No, to achieve the double moment of those eleven words, ‘As he walked down…’ the screenplay, and then the film, needs the set-up scene and then the pay-off in which he sees a sprinkler spraying a lawn. Without doubt, the audience knows he is remembering his sister at that moment – but what a fucking slog.

I can get it down to seven words.

He walked along, thinking of his sister.


He strolled, remembering his sister.


He strolled, remembering Shaniqua.


Remembering Shaniqua, he strolled.

Fiction can easily have scenes which interpenetrate, which haunt, one another. Scenes which don’t do one thing at once. In some ways, it’s harder to avoid doing this than to do it – because scenes occur because other scenes have occurred before them.

They are in the pub, arguing about money, because they’ve been to the funeral, because Uncle Terry died because Uncle Terry climbed the ladder onto the roof because the storm had blown off the slates and therefore there was something in the wrong place (slates) which cause someone (Terry) to be in the wrong place which meant something went wrong (Terry slipped) and something went more wrong (Terry died without leaving a will).

Written stories, rather than stories on screens, can create a present moment that is much less limited, that is much more haunted by past and future, than film or TV can.



Two important things that can happen in any scene are 1. that a person has a realisation or makes a decision, and 2. that someone acts on a decision – or just acts spontaneously without thinking (if you believe that’s possible).

We’ve already seen the different ways in which films and stories cope with showing what’s going on inside someone’s head. And I’ve just, I hope, given an example (sister-sprinkler). And I hope I’ve given a good example of how stories can be more efficient (because they only need one sentence, not two scenes).

The second most common piece of advice given to writers, after Write what you know is Show, don’t tell.

One of the changes you may notice between the new book and the twentieth anniversary book you just looked at is that the new one is less tell-y and more show-y.

Just because stories can do the insides of people’s heads more efficiently doesn’t mean that storytelling, as a whole, doesn’t change under the wider influence of film and TV, YouTube and vines.

Viewers of film and TV stories have become very good at translating what a person does (what is shown) into what they are feeling or thinking (what we would need to be told about them, or what they would need to tell another person or speak in a voiceover for us to know for certain).


For example, a person who lights a cigarette with shaking hands is understood immediately – in the language of cinema – to starting to deal with the shock of something that has just happened, but to be out of immediate danger. A person letting the door of their apartment close behind them and then doing a fist-pump or a little dance, even if the viewer saw nothing of them before this, would be understood as celebrating a triumph they achieved through maintaining a proper, grown-up demeanour.

If you were able to time-travel back to 1950, and show just these scenes to a cinema audience, I think they would understand the shaky cigarette – although some might suppose the person lighting the cigarette was cold rather than shocked, but they would almost certainly not understand the fist-pump. Like the high-five and brushing imaginary dust off one’s shoulders, this is a piece of showing that has only become common in the past half century. The private dance, however, seen in isolation might be extremely confusing. It might signal that the person was insane, or that they were shivering because of something running down their back, or that they were about to start tapdancing because this was a scene from a musical.

These are examples of the Show, don’t tell (because it’s clunky) language of movies. But because the viewers of films are the readers of books, story writers are able to use visual shorthand in order to convey what the people in their stories are feeling.


So –

She hurried out through the exit doors and tried to light a cigarette. It was difficult – her hands were shaking so much.

This, we would understand emotionally even if we hadn’t had the scene in which she received the shock.

How much more effective this is, as storytelling, than –

She hurried out through the exit doors and stood there for a moment, trying to process her feelings over the shock she had just received.

Okay, perhaps that’s deliberately bad, and the ‘stood there for a moment’ is also shorthand, though more ambiguous shorthand for someone taking a moment to think about something that’s just happened to them.

She hurried out the exit doors, feeling extremely shaken up by what she’d just seen.

It’s more distanced, less physicalised than the shaky cigarette. In terms of story-time, it’s slower, vaguer.

Let’s try the next one the other way round –

After she was sure the door had shut behind her, she allowed herself to feel immensely joyful, and not a little giddy, about the professional triumph she had just achieved.

Again, I may have exaggerated the wordiness a little. But you will read equivalent sentences in dozens of stories.

After she was sure the door had shut behind her, she relaxed and felt joyful – everything had gone so well for her.

And the movie-influenced, Show, don’t tell version –

After she was sure the door had shut behind her, she did a little dance – woop woop.

I am not saying that everyone has to write this way. If possible, I avoid ever advising writers Show, don’t tell. I certainly don’t say, Rely on cinematic tropes to do the work of conveying the inner life of someone you’re writing about. The best writers will find new language every time, to bring people alive for us in a fresh, distinctive, uncliched way.

(This is why writing is hard. Just to show someone feeling joyful for a moment, in a non-familiar way, is extremely difficult. Why not just say, ‘She smiled broadly’? Well, over to you – why not?) We will recognise the action, and translate it into the thought or emotion, because it has been so accurately observed. And we will feel it more because we will recognise it as something within ourselves that’s been put into words, rather than something we’ve seen on a screen that’s now happening in a book.


Let’s have a go –

She hurried through the exit doors and went straight up to two women smoking and chatting.

‘Put those out,’ she said. ‘Put them out now.’

Then she walked away.

The character is a lot less generalised now. It’s a reaction that wouldn’t be everyone’s reaction. It also takes more words.

After she was sure the door had shut behind her, she headed straight for the fridge, grabbed the orange juice and drank it down in one.


After she was sure the door had shut behind her, she headed straight for the fridge, grabbed the milk, unscrewed the cap and inhaled deeply.

Something important needs to be added here, and it’s the kind of thing that used to get writers labelled as post-modern. The people you are writing about, if you are writing about now, live in a world saturated by cinematic shorthand. This is nearly unavoidable. Some people will resist expressing themselves in a way they’ve learned from watching movies. They may try not to express themselves, on the outside, at all. But many others will adopt and perhaps adapt a shorthand of behaviours, particularly private behaviours, from movies. Most of us haven’t been in the room with a man receiving news of the death of his child. Most of us have seen this scene probably dozens of times, on screen. (See Laura Palmer’s father on the phone in the first series of Twin Peaks. Almost impossible to bear.) We have also seen the scenes that follow – the different behaviours of the grieving father. Some real-life fathers, in the same terrible situation, will model themselves on what they’ve learned from movies.

Exercise: Write some sentences in which a character’s physical action conveys their thought process. Have them change their mind, but only describe them doing this from the outside. No ‘she felts’ or ‘he thoughts’.

Stay safe.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 36 – The Haunted Scene, or Better than Movies

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 35 – If you want to be published, you mustn’t write for the dead | tobylitt

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