How Little it Takes to Set a Scene

by F.

In his wonderfully useful little book called the Writers Little Instruction Book: Craft & Technique, Paul Raymond Martin advises writers to think of their story as a coloring book, “with characters and scenes presented only in outline….[T]he reader colors each scene based on his or her knowledge and experience, creating a personal rendering of the story.”

If you look closely, it’s sort of shocking how little is needed for a reader to see a setting for a scene. For instance, the other day was reading an interview with Renzo Piano, the architect. The interviewer (Peter Aspden, of the Financial Times) went to visit Piano, and he set the scene for his meeting like this:

In an airy room inside Renzo Piano’s studio in the Marais district of Paris, a table is laden with delicious Italian antipasti and a bottle of Nuits St Georges. I have arrived a few minutes early, but my guest, who has overturned convention and decided to play host, makes his jaunty entrance soon afterwards. “Trust me,” says the slogan on his grey T-shirt, “I’m an architect.” Piano laughs heartily. “I wore it specially for the occasion.”

We sit down to our meal. I had insisted that the rules of this feature meant I had to take Piano out to lunch at his favourite restaurant, but he says he rarely eats out, and this was far more typical of his working life: a high-class takeaway in a specially created space in the studio. We are surrounded by activity, but also insulated from it. The sunlight streams through the glass roof, yet it is not too hot. The space is perfect; so is the food. The delivery, he says, is from Lenotre, the prestigious Parisian caterers. “Jambon de Parme. They know where to find the best quality.”

When I read this, I felt like I can see distinctly the room in which Aspden is interviewing Piano. I can smell it, even. But look closely at how few words Aspden actually uses to describe the location of the interview:

  • airy room
  • in Paris
  • a studio
  • sunlight streaming in
  • a glass roof
  • it’s not too hot

That’s it. And yet, the scene is vivid. So vivid that I want to be there. As in haiku, it doesn’t take much, provided that what is there is sufficiently evocative.