Using Your Character's Surroundings: The Importance of Props and Foreshadowing

I was in a scene writing workshop once when, for an assignment based upon the idea of writing suspense, a student wrote a scene that went something like this:

INT. DARK ROOM – NIGHT

He runs into the dark room and scrambles around.  He can’t see anything.  It’s terrifying.

The professor held up his hand to stop the student from reading.

“What’s in that room?”

The student shrugged.  “I don’t know – it’s dark.”

The professor shook his head.  “A dark room can become a light room – all you have to do is turn on the light.”

The class giggled a bit at the obviousness of this statement, but it wasn’t long before what he really meant came to us.  The character in that scene may well be experiencing it in pitch darkness.  However, that room isn’t always dark.  What’s in it, when visibility is allowed?  Is it filled with boxes?  Is it giant and empty and seemingly never ending?

Why is it important to know what’s in that room?  We don’t see it, right?  At least not in detail, if the scene is to take place solely in the dark.  But: what is your character up against in that room?   And how is that going to affect the outcome of how the scene plays out?

Props – in film and in theatre – often serve the purpose of helping to dress a set to create the world of a story properly.  If a scene takes place in a kitchen in 1950, the props master or art director will be tasked with finding props that will look as though they are from 1950 to make that kitchen feel realistic.

However, beyond helping to sketch and realize the world your characters live in, props can also be extremely useful tools in your narrative.   In any given location, a character has everything in the room at his or her disposal for use, just as you or I would.  Inside the kitchen, a character may pick up a pitcher and pour water into glasses.  Inside a living room, he or she might pick up a book that was resting on a coffee table, which might become a conversation piece within the scene.

With regard to foreshadowing using objects and surroundings, filmmakers have an excellent tool that theatre directors do not, which is the camera lens.  The camera is like the viewer’s eye into the world of your film, and it allows a filmmaker to direct the viewer’s attention to a specific object or surrounding.   Then, the viewer is aware of that important object’s existence should a need to re-reference it come back.

For example:

INT. DEN – NIGHT

The den is small, with three couches and a tiny table on which sits a heavy, iron candelabra.  It’s meant to hold three candles but only one burns.  That one candle is the only source of light for the room.

HELEN (20) enters the room through the door, panting and scared as though she has been running for a while.  She looks around the dim room, unable to see far beyond the small circle of light provided by the one burning candle.

Her back against the door, she closes her eyes to catch her breath – she looks almost as though she is relieved.  She puts her hand to her forehead to wipe sweat from her brow and as she does, a tiny little breath – not her own – is emitted from somewhere within the room, which goes completely dark.  The candle has been extinguished.

Helen screams as loud as she possibly can – she is terrified.  She immediately tries to leave the room but she cannot.  The door has been locked.

In the darkness, she finds her way to the table, where she grabs the candelabra.

From behind her, a figure grabs her shoulders, ready to attack.  As though it is a reflex, Helen lifts her arm and WHACK!  The candelabra makes contact with the figure’s head with a sickening thwack.  The figure crumples the to the ground, unconscious.

Candelabra still in hand, Helen now uses it to break the locked doorknob off the door, which she runs out of into the night.

You’ll notice that in this scene, the writer has made sure the viewer is aware of the candelabra a few times before it is used as the murder weapon.  It is the sole source of light, and affects how Helen sees the room.  It is the source of the room becoming totally dark, which is integral for the scene because it clues Helen into the fact that she is not alone in the room – she is under attack.  At the point at which she picks up the candelabra to hit the attacker over the head, it’s a natural, working part of the world of the scene.

Remember to let your reader – and ultimately your viewer – in on objects that might come in handy later in the narrative.  Used properly, props can become players in their own right within a scene, and they can propel your character’s narrative because they are part of what a character has or is up against in his or her world.  A key dropped down a sewer drain might propel your character into a journey of being locked out.  Ruby slippers in one’s possession may grant her access to a wizard who can help her get home.

In most cases, it is not necessary to tell the reader within a script everything he or she is see in a room.  “A well-stocked 1950’s style kitchen – equipped with all of the latest gadgets for the time” would be enough to get the point across that your characters are doing well in the 1950’s and that their kitchen is nice.  It would be your props master’s job to figure out what goes in that room.

So, although it is not a necessity that the writer sketch out every prop, props are fantastic tools in the writer’s tool belt.

Watch the following scene from “The Kings Speech” and think about how you would describe the room.

The script describes the scene as follows: “A different universe from the Spartan waiting area. A world of books – piles of them spilling everywhere. Two slightly shabby, but comfortable armchairs. Well-worn Turkish rug. Hotplate and two chipped mugs. Recording apparatus. Model airplanes.”

Written by Lauren McGrail

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