Having had a lot of experience in theater over the years, one of the things I always enjoyed when I was acting was having a prop in a scene. Food to be eaten, clothes to be packed, dishes to be set, you name it. I always felt an inherent ease and believability in having a task to accompany my performance, something to keep my hands busy while my head was immersed.
But props in a play aren’t always a good idea. When chosen poorly, they can appear contrived, or distracting, drawing the viewer’s focus from the emotional core of the scene.
It’s the same in writing. Just like in acting, props have to have a place in a scene to work, and using them well can be tougher than it seems.
For starters, props can be structurally tricky. Much in the way some of us nit-pickers can’t help but notice that a film actor’s glass of wine/cigarette/sandwich grows and vanishes, grows and vanishes during the course of a five-minute scene, props in writing must be organized and consistent.
Eating and drinking scenes are especially tough. Sometimes characters are gluttonous–you can have them serving themselves twelve slices of pizza before you realize it–or refilling their coffee so often your reader wonders if they don’t have a leaky mug. Dressing your character (or undressing, whichever the case may be)? Be careful they don’t put on more than one pair of socks (unless they’re going skating on a pond in Maine in January) or zip up those button-fly jeans, or tie those sneakers so many times your reader will wonder if they’re practicing knot-tying for a merit badge.
Frequency is another stickler when employing props in your scenes. I’ve re-read scenes of mine where my use of props was so prominent, I wondered if I was writing a scene or a recipe. (In my defense, there is a scene in LITTLE GALE GUMBO where the goal is to teach one of the characters how to make gumbo, so the actions of the “props” took on an unusual focus in the scene. But in most cases, you don’t want your props to overwhelm your scene.)
So when do props work?
1. When they are part of the background, there to reinforce/give authenticity to your setting: Julian handed Anna the menu and she smiled as she took it. “Brunch is my favorite,” she said, setting it down. “I hear the Eggs Benedict here is wonderful.” She couldn’t help checking out the stack of individual jams in their shiny metal basket. It was nothing to alphabetize them while he looked over the Specials Board.
When they reinforce the goal or mindset of a character: Anna pulled out a second napkin and set it in her lap so he wouldn’t think she was prone to spills this time. OR Anna worked the napkin in her lap, shredding it to ribbons while she listened to him explain Margot’s perfect triple axel.
I like props, I do, but I have to remind myself they are part of the background, bit parts, never leads.
So how do you all use props in your writing? Any favorites you find your characters using from story to story?