Scaffolding is the temporary assemblage of lightweight poles and platforms to provide a workspace during the construction or decoration of a building. And in writing it’s a metaphor for a problem we all encounter when we are revising.
In this post I am going to break down what some examples of scaffolding, why they’re a problem and what you can do to fix them. Hopefully you’ll have a more practical understanding of what it means, to “show, don’t tell,” as well.
Okay so we know how when they build a building, first they put up the scaffolding, build the damn thing, then they remove the scaffolding? Right?
Well writing is the same. Scaffolding in writing is when we explain jokes, or plot points, character traits etc. to ourselves so we understand its significance in our story. That’s our scaffolding. It’s is necessary because they help us the writer know who knows what when, what’s going to be important down the line both in the story and in the rewriting process. But once we’ve finished, we then have to go and remove them afterward. weave them into the action earlier.
Readers don’t need to see the scaffolding, and just like it is removing once construction on a building is there. If we don’t, it’s a particular form of ‘telling’ when we writers talk about ‘show, don’t tell.’
At the crux of it “telling” is a statement of emotion or action or fact and it also tells the reader what conclusions they should be making about your character: The Queen is evil because she was vain, two plus two equals four.
Whereas “showing” gives the reader the information they need to draw their own conclusions: The Queen is going to kill the beautiful princess or even more basic: two plus two. The reader will decide if that means the Queen is evil, and why, and that two plus two does indeed equal four. You don’t need to do it for them. We don’t say “this is four.”
In this made-up example, Penny is our main character and another character, Binh, is being introduced for the first time.
Penny turns a corner to see Binh outside the cupcake shop. Binh had been her friend since college and had been catfishing Penny. It had started before they were even had a class together, and Binh didn’t really mean to do it, it was just that once he started, and then they became friends, he didn’t know how to stop without revealing it to Penny and losing her friendship, which he valued above all things.
she doesn’t know it was him yet. She suspects something is up though. Binh smiles his very attractive smile that lit up his whole face.
Penny smiles back. ‘Hey.’
The main scaffolding here is that I’ve told the reader what Binh’s secret, motivation, and goals are upfront. Important for the writer to know, but nothing’s left for the reader to discover. There’s the answer but no question. The decision here I’d need to make when revising is if I want the reader to discover Binh’s catfishing at the same time as Penny. I decided that I do:
Penny turns a corner to see Binh outside the cupcake place. ‘Hey.’ She smiles. ‘Didn’t think I’d see you here?’ She’d driven all the way across town to get here, and Binh didn’t even have a car.
Binh shrugs. ‘Read about it online.’
‘I didn’t think they had even done any advertising yet.’
If you’re paying attention you should spot that while this is better, there’s still some scaffolding (the fact that Binh doesn’t have a car, and that the shop’s across town) within this scene. that could be set up earlier in another scene. You have to revise more than once!
Scaffolding can also be of character traits. Imagine this example comes at the midpoint of a story:
“Well?” Cara sneered at the two girls.
Patricia was usually an argumentative person, she always had some sort of retort and never backed down from a fight, in fact, she seemed to enjoy it. But this time she just shrugged. Sylvia was surprised at Patricia’s reaction.
This example is scaffolding Patricia’s personality trait of being argumentative. By this point in the story the readers have already formed an idea of who the characters are, so if they’ve seen Patricia get angry all the time it’s redundant information and can be cut.
But perhaps Patricia has been in multiple scenes and the reader hasn’t actually seen Patricia be generally argumentative. So now the writer has a problem: they’ve made a statement that appears incongruous with the rest of the story, and either seems like a mistake to the reader, or it will confuse the reader and risk losing their interest because the story seems inconsistent.
I decided that the goal in this scene is to show that Patricia is having some sort of change of heart, and she’s no longer going to be so argumentative. So earlier scenes need to be rewritten. Then back to this scene:
“Well?” Cara sneered at the two girls.
Sylvia held her breath.
Patricia looked at Cara for a long moment, then slung her school bag over her shoulder with a shrug and walked away.
Another type of scaffolding that needs to be removed are topic sentences. They’re usually shortish, declarative sentences at the start of a paragraph. Pretty much what we learned to do at school when writing. Topic sentences are great when you’re writing essays, or blog posts but not so great for fiction. Because they blurt out the whole point of the paragraph at the start, leaving nothing for the reader to build on. It’s like you’ve shouted out ‘The answer is four’ before you’ve asked the reader to work out two plus two. It’s dry and abstract and spoils the experience and sense of discovery for the reader. Open up all the details and let the reader come to the conclusion. You’ll either need to rewrite the paragraph completely as in the first example below, or you might find that you can just cut that first sentence because the rest of the paragraph/s quite clearly demonstrate it.
Example: Mish didn’t know if she could bare the heat any longer.
There’s not a lot for the reader to infer or imagine.
Mish turned the engine turned off and peeled her thighs away from the vinyl. They made a horrible sucking sound and her thighs had red impressions of the cracks in the material left in them. Was it better to dash into the house and out of the sun quicker, or to walk and not make herself any sweatier than she already was? But there was no difference in temperature inside the house.
In this example the author has described the scene with detail but left in the topic sentence. It simply needs to be cut:
Andrew hated his sister and loved to torture her. It was his turn to make dessert, so he scooped vanilla ice cream into four bowls. Then he sprinkled salt over one of the balls in one bowl, the crystals invisible on top of the ice cream. He put that bowl in front of his sister, salted ice cream ball closest to her.
She dug in with her spoon and cried the moment the spoon was in her mouth. ‘Andrew did something to my ice cream!’
‘No, I didn’t.’
His mum reached over and scooped up some ice cream from the non-salted ball near her to taste it. ‘It’s fine, stop making a fuss.’
‘He should swap with me.’
‘Fine.’ Andrew spun his bowl over and took hers and took a big spoonful of non-salted ice cream.
His sister was shocked. ‘No, give it back!’ She snatched her bowl of ice cream away from him.
Over to you:
Go through your manuscript and look for topic sentence, summaries in the middle of scenes or summaries of a new character when they enter the scene.
Think about what purpose they serve and how you can remove it, or how you can show that particular aspect.
Remember: don’t say 4; say two plus two and let the reader come up with 4.
Cass Frances is an Australian writer who now lives in France. There, she is a manuscript assessor, slush pile reader and writer. She writes Young Adult fiction about ghosts, girls and goths, and anything else that exists at the slippery edges of reality. Cass has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.