Setting the Scene

Where your scene takes place is, in many ways, as important as the scene itself. It sets the mood, the tone. The environment your characters are in can contrast sharply with what’s going on or add to the emotion. Perhaps Penny’s boyfriend is breaking her heart at the carnival, contrasting with the gaiety all around her as happy people and bright lights make her feel more isolated in her pain. In another story, the dusty relics surrounding Justin in an antique store can make his discovery of an old photograph he recognizes all the more exciting as he feels like Indiana Jones.

The setting can influence a lot more than location. It provides information to both you and eventually the reader. Setting can dictate things like politics, dialect, climate, and local flora and fauna. Houses can be luxurious, homey, cold, or derelict. While you don’t need to launch into a long dissertation describing the setting, a few well-placed details can inform the reader of the setting and add to the scene, making it come alive.

If you’re writing historical fiction, setting becomes even more important. Making that time period realistic to the reader can be challenging. You want to be accurate without overdoing it.

When dealing with your settings, be aware of placing objects. Every object you describe should have its place. Pay close attention to how objects are placed the next time you watch a movie or a play. Everything is placed deliberately. This is how you dress your scene as well. These objects become your characters’ props. Every fork, every hairbrush… if they are used by your characters, they become a tool for you. This doesn’t mean every object has to be important. The fork can just be a fork, but if you need it to be, it could be so much more. Maybe it was the treasured object Mary’s mother inherited from her great-grandmother that really carried a curse on all who used it and only Mary put all the clues together to figure out its significance.

Other objects can help set the mood. An old photograph or a baby blanket could trigger memories. It all depends on how you make an object stand out. If you list them quickly, nothing gains importance, but if something in the setting draws a character’s attention, our attention is drawn to it, too.

Now it gets interesting. At some point, some object is going to have a significant impact on your plot. Look at the power of the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This object was so significant that it became the focus of every scene it was in.

And don’t be afraid to get specific. Is it more interesting to go into a building or a bank? Does your character drive a car or a Prius? The details don’t have to fill a paragraph to give information. Each one helps us set the scene and learn more about your characters. It tells us a lot that Joan prefers to sit at the corner booth in the local Denny’s than go to the ritzy diner on Main Street. These little details of the setting make your characters more real to us. To make them even more vivid, make sure they interact with the setting. Maybe Joan has a habit of playing with the sugar dispenser, flipping the little metal tab up and down before she doses her coffee with a hefty serving of the sweet stuff.

Keep notes of your settings just like you do for your characters, especially if it recurs so you can keep the details straight. Don’t want Joan sliding over the red vinyl seats in one scene only to have them yellow in the next.

So think about your settings. It’s okay to let them grow a bit as you revise your story. Sketch them in at first, then layer the details in as you go. None of us float through our environments without being touched by them. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

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.