What is Scaffolding (in Writing)

What is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a support system builders and artists use to be able to construct something.

  • Michelangelo used scaffolding to paint the Sistine Chapel.
  • Writers use scaffolding to write their books.

And these guys use scaffolding to work on signage. (Signage is a fun word, by the way.)


Scaffolding is what we put in the beginning of the book to make it make sense. Backstory, worldbuilding, history, motivation, explanations, and setting. Authors doing first drafts often fall prey to putting up scaffolding. It’s not a bad practice. It allows you to establish the world your characters will inhabit.

Scaffolding explains how the world collapsed into a dystopia, how the scientific exploration founded its base on an inhospitable planet, what really happened between mother and daughter twenty years ago, and how the little city on the map survived the fire.


What’s The Problem?

Scaffolding is handy, but it needs to come down in order for viewers and readers to fully appreciate the artist’s work. You don’t see scaffolding impeding your view of the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceilings, do you?

Scaffolding is almost always unnecessary, and it should disappear during revision. The essence of the world should be woven throughout the whole story. Important information should be disseminated through dialogue, character interaction and ACTION!

Scaffolding is something writers do for their own benefit. We right summaries, scenes, and brief overviews of histories and places and people. We do this—quite honestly—so that we don’t forget things.


But HOW?

Once you’ve identified, how do you get rid of it? There’s probably some important stuff in there! You can’t just delete it all, can you? What you need to do is find the important information and move it into the body of the story.

  • Introduce information through dialogue and character interaction. The best way for readers to learn things is on the go. We learn things as characters learn them. That’s why the “normal joe enters crazy world” scenario is so popular.
    • For example, Harry Potter is a normal joe shmoe until he is swept up in the wizarding world.
    • Mel Gibson is Dad/Farmer before entering the war.
    • An everyday-typical-normal girl gets swept up in a conspiracy/plot/realm situation.


  • Explain the world through setting and atmosphere. I refer you to the Ever Holy Advice of Creative Writing: Show don’t tell. Readers want to feel and experience and see the world around them.
    • Instead of “The city was huge.” Give us: “Skyscrapers hid the horizon, which is just as well because it would have been gorged with polluted smoke.”
    • Instead of “Planet 91XD was barren, suitable only for gray crawling plants that scavenge the dusty surface for water and human victims!” Give us this: “Dust filled his lungs. He tasted dirt, sweat, and the decayed leafy stench of the gray crawlers. As he punched his code to open the access hatch, the crawler drew closer and closer, its spiny tentacles reaching out.”


  • Give backstory through conversations. Dialogue is king. It’s fast to read, its easy to spot on the page, and it keeps the story engaged with characters and readers.
    • Often, the backstory you build will shine through without a narrative explanation. A jaded lover will appear cold and distant, an icy assassin will have emotionless eyes, a troubled teen will brood and frown a lot.
    • The purpose of backstory is to give is the what and why of the actions our characters take. However, most of this is inferred just through the way our characters behave.


Think of it this way: You get ONE chance to ensnare a reader. Just one chance. When readers read the first chapter, do you want them to be drawn into the story by action, intrigue, vocal characters, and interesting plot? Or do you want to bog them down with information.

Better yet, when you open to the first pages of a story, what makes you want to keep reading?


One thought on “What is Scaffolding (in Writing)

  1. Pingback: Why Scaffolding Needs to Be Deleted | words — and other things

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