Monday, March 2, 2009

mise en scene: And You Thought You Knew

mise en scene--the visual aspects of a story; descriptions or evocation of a place, a time, and a setting; the positioning and movement (but not physical description of characters) of individuals in a dramatic narrative.

The term has been borrowed from the stage and motion picture set, where it refers to uses and placement of scenery, blocking, and atmosphere. When used critically or editorially to discuss a particular novel or story, it may mask the critic's or editor's desire to make the concept of setting seem more mystical than it ought to be, thus the warning to writers that terms expressed in foreign words or terms (See denouement and deus ex machina) should be made to show their passports at the border: Is there, they might ask, a suitable English language translation?

Mise en scene gives the writer of narrative fiction an opportunity to provide subtext, wherein the setting an/or activities of characters provide an unspoken, unwritten feeling or theme. Consider early on in the first act of Tennesee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire, where the principal character, Blanche DuBois, appears. Had Streetcar been a novel, we might have had some moments of interior monologue, but as the play is mounted, we see Blanche appearing in a brightly lit room, turning down the lights as she appears to be looking for something. Our curiosities aroused, we follow her as she approaches a hidden bottle of whiskey, then takes a bracing pull on it. Not a word has been spoken and yet we have learned things about her.

What would it say, for instance, about two characters who are watching television in their bedroom? What would it say about the same two characters who were watching television in their living room, each seated behind a fold-up tray on which a dinner dish rested? What additional would it say about the same two characters if they were sitting on separate Laz-y Boy chairs which had clear plastic covers on them?

The most effective use of the mise en scene concept can be experienced by remembering the importance of story in the dramatic equation. If mise en scene contributes to a deeper sensory awareness of story, then it is successful.

narrative--a systematic arrangement of dramatic information for the purpose of relating a story; presentation of character-based activities that involve readers to the point where they feel a stake in the outcome; events related with the purpose of keeping the reader alert and concerned.

The term "narrative" is a lazy term, being used generically to mean any story or tale. Narrative in a novel or short story is the sum of interior monologue, description, mise en scene, and action, which leaves only dialogue as non-narrative. A writer's narrative is any fiction intended for print or web media. A writer's voice is the tone with which a story is freighted.

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