Setting the Scene

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, you need to set the scene. Have you ever read a book and felt like you were really there alongside the characters? That author set the scene so it became real to you. This is what you want to do, no matter if you are writing a fantasy, a horror novel or a romance.

Add a dose of reality. Sure, your fantasy world may have purple flying unicorns, but even the unicorn has to eat. Creating places in your story that your readers can identify with and then tweaking them to become fantastic, horrific or romantic will go a long way to making your world come alive. Describe the field, garden or house where the action is taking place and use words to make it out of the ordinary.

Take a look at the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone outside of the U. S.), Harry and Ron take on the twelve foot tall mountain troll inside a girls’ bathroom. We can all picture that easily; the row of stalls, the line of ceramic sinks and the metal pipes going into the wall. This scene uses a very common, utilitarian setting for a very unusual situation. How many mountain trolls have you met in the girls’ bathroom? Yet, it seems very believable to the reader.

J. K. Rowling didn’t spend several paragraphs describing the bathroom in minute detail, either. Small details appear throughout the action, like “The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the wall as it went.” That’s really all we need to know to picture the usual row of sinks in a public bathroom. The detail becomes a part of the action as the troll knocks the sinks off the wall.

Of course, there are times when it pays to spend time with a full description, but this is only appropriate when you are showing your readers the scene unfolding before your character’s eyes. In a later chapter, Harry, Hermione and Ron are trying to solve the puzzles to get to the stone. When they get to one of the puzzles, J. K. Rowling describes the scene that meets their eyes:

They reached the end of the passageway and saw before them a brilliantly lit chamber, its ceiling arching high above them. It was full of small, jewel-bright birds, fluttering and tumbling all around the room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a heavy wooden door.

In three sentences, the reader gets a vivid picture painted for them. Nice, tight writing gives the information required and no more. Don’t be afraid to jot down everything in your first draft; tighten it during your rewrites. Set the scene, but don’t let it control the scene.