Making a scene: why stories need back-up

Leila Johnston, Managing Editor, The Literary Platform

As we fixate on every aspect of story construction, TLP’s Managing Editor Leila Johnston invites us to pause for a moment, and admire the scenery.

We talk a lot about stories. We worry about how to construct them – the ‘arc’, the pacing, the beginning, middle and end. We wonder whether our characters’ experiences are compelling, their responses convincing. In fact, we focus so intently on every aspect of our little constellation of themes and characters as we push them through their world that, sometimes, we neglect to rotate our gaze away from the vehicle, and notice the scenery.

By the scenery, I mean everything that doesn’t come on the journey with us. It’s the stimulating stuff about sandbox games like Minecraft and The Sims – the tantalising outline of something familiar that simply hangs there, inviting us to compete the picture. And actually, I’d rather call them doll’s house games, because although the untouched raw materials provided by virtual sandpits and real world toys is exciting, I love the haunting intrigue of an established world with no one in it. The fascination of a doll’s house is for me a bit apocalyptic. The sand-blasted shelters of the nuclear test dummy towns are doll’s houses. There was something there, once, and everything is exactly as the inhabitants left it. Of course, I much prefer my doll’s houses without dolls in.

Which might explain why I am so interested in the surrounding story. Scenery, atmosphere, setting – these tell the story that isn’t articulated by the sequence of events – that can’t, in fact, usually be told in words at all – but forms the bedrock of the best adventures. Disney’s 2010 Rapunzel animation ‘Tangled’ is a wonderful film in terms of plot, writing and characterisation, but it has the most extraordinarily beautiful scenery I think I’ve ever seen. The attention lavished on the scenery is surprising, and substantially enriches the story and our engagement with the characters. Appropriately, since the film is about Rapunzel’s release from life imprisonment, the outside world is the biggest, most inviting, and most intimidating thing in the film. Alone in her tower, she owns every inch, but outside everything is huge compared to Rapunzel. The forest is so enchanting. The night sky is so beautiful. The world is vast and interesting and inspires you while you’re watching it. Just seeing the woods fills you with Rapunzel’s need to explore them and her trepidation, too. You can’t help it: you just become infected with her spirit of adventure. In fact, the scenery is so good that the film, at least partially, functions as a sandbox… or doll’s house, even while you’re watching it.

All of this does, I realise, slightly undermine the emphasis on stories as we usually think of them. But it also explains the enduring appeal of certain types of stories – ones which are able to restore something of the immediacy of childhood. As adults, we may escape obsessively into stories that fulfill something we’re missing, and the scenarios and locations we love are often exotic and aspirational. Even when they’re traumatic, stories are a way of feeling and thinking about things that take us away from our lives. For children, though, stories are something to invite into their own worlds and integrate with their immediate environment. Mummy and Daddy become characters from a TV show; a toybox becomes a pirate ship. I always think of the brilliant scene in Outnumbered where tiny Karen pretends her teddy is Nigella Lawson. Grown-ups project outward into imagined futures and wistful pasts, but children look at what’s available, right here, right now, and pragmatically get on with it. Their approach is a compression of time and space, and really, an invitation to magic.

To allow the fantastical attributes of imaginative realms to invade our own worlds, as children do, we must find the doors to these realms. In a way, I suppose, a magic door is the symbolic threshold to the dynamic narrative – but it’s in the story, too: it’s scenery with agency. Doorways and portals show how a set can make a story exciting through potential. They turn up everywhere, always bringing with them the breathtaking possibility that anything could happen next. Off the top of my head, there are scene-stealing doors in Doctor Who, the game Portal, Alice in Wonderland, the film The Adjustment Bureau, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe – even that old episode of Red Dwarf:

The Cat: [to Rimmer] What *is* it?

Rimmer: It’s singularity, a point in the Universe where the normal laws of space and time don’t apply.

The Cat: [to Lister] What *is* it?

Lister: It’s a hole back into the past.

The Cat: Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn’t you say?

Wherever there’s the possibility of losing oneself in the confusion and excitement of a magical alternative, there’s a threshold – and doorways to other worlds are implied in religion, spiritualism and the world of stage magic, which not coincidentally prioritises its scene-setting over its three-act storytelling. Magic tricks are perhaps the ultimate inversion of subject and scene, and are considerably less magical without the benefit of an eye-widening yarn or a beautiful backstory. By definition, of course, magic should never be prosaic – it should bring with it its own engaging context, dragging the audiences’ expectations and personal neuroses in to complete the picture, and (ideally) delightfully, highlighting the flaws in our assumptions with grace. If the trick is the narrative, the gorgeous story that situates it emotionally and purposefully in our heads is the scenery.

The history of art has some interesting analogues for us here, too. Christopher Wood’s book ‘Albrecht Altdorfer and the origins of landscape’ formulates the birth of landscape as an exchange between a detailed ‘subject’ and ‘supplimentary’ background.

Until the likes of Altdorfer and Durer, Northern European art was dominated by exquisite miniatures and maps. The Italians knew about grids and scale from fresco painting, and for them the Renaissance was a scaling down – translating walls onto canvas. But the Northern Renaissance artists knitted outwards from a detailed knight on a horse or woman bathing, expanding this level of detail across the canvas to create the most intricate forest. To over-simplify, landscape painting began when miniatures met maps.

And an exchange took place. The same exchange we see in magic tricks and that may be behind the success of Minecraft. It’s the thing that makes some films feel more real than others; the thing that allows a threshold to open up.

What happened was this. The little people in the paintings shrank in size and significance, upstaged by glorious scenery and eventually disappearing altogether as the subject matter became the backdrop. These early landscape paintings were indicative, not reflective: they emerged from maps and portraits to impart information and situate the viewer in something larger than themselves – not flatter by holding a mirror up to your world. Inevitably, these early landscapes drew you in to something exciting (check out The Battle of Issus) but their story is simultaneous, not linear. You are not invited to follow a path, but to stand on it and look around.

Very young children learn by playing, but the materials of their play are not quite games, but space and props. What if the stories, in the sense of one damn thing after another, are actually rather less fun than the space around them? Would you rather explore glittering Narnia for a weekend or follow everything Lucy Pevensie decides to do? Do you think kids pretending to be Harry Potter reinact the scenes word for word? The thrill of the fantasy setting is that they invite projection – the faint possibility it could happen to us. Without a well thought-out landscape we can never really get a sense of how small we are or confront the possibilities of a world beyond us. Perhaps doll’s houses don’t make us giants but shrink us, and perhaps scenery isn’t a way of contextualising a story, but of decontextualising ourselves. As adults habitually invested with our own importance, we need to get lost in the woods more than ever.

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