If you wish to immerse your readers into your story, and take them to new and exciting places, then it becomes important to “set the scene”. Our Monday TalkWrite group discussed some strategies and techniques for doing this, along with how much is to much?
For stories set in the contemporary world:
Research your setting: visit it if possible, otherwise, there are plenty of resources available on the internet, both static and video. Take note of a few of the more striking features. Even if these are not included in the story, they will help you get a better feel of the scenery and help guide your character’s actions.
For example: if I were setting a scene in a Market place in Madagascar (picture above from Pixabay), I might take note of the colourful clothing and mixture of fashions, the wooden stalls, the general bustle and noise, and the children and livestock running around. I might also take note of a few of the more unusual goods for sale (ie: sandals made out of old car tyres – not pictured here).
Consider the scene from your point-of-view character’s perspective: is the character entering the above scene a local, or an outsider? One would view the scene a lot differently from the other! Consider their character traits too: would they find the crowds stifling – or exhilarating? And their physical traits: are they tall, short? Each would view the world differently. Also their goals: are they sight-seeing, or seeking to make a purchase? Use this to determine how much information to portray to the reader.
Have your character interact with the scenery: instead of standing there staring, incorporate the character into the scene: dodging through the crowd, ducking beneath a hanging awning, stepping over a sleeping dog. How are the vendors reacting towards them? Do they know the character personally? Or will they view them as an outsider?
Don’t forget the other senses! Don’t just rely on visual descriptions, think of how the place smells, the sounds that the character might hear, how the ground feels beneath their feet. Use only the senses that help paint the most vivid mental image.
Don’t get bogged down by description: a few sentences can paint the scene, but several paragraphs will bring the story to a grinding halt. Pick a few key features to highlight, and let the reader imagine the rest.
For stories set in a fantastical world:
Fantastical worlds can vary from relatively similar to our own, to widely different. If your world has some rather dramatic geographical differences, then you may find a bit more description is required. To properly get a grasp on your world, write out a detailed description of the setting – this is for your reference. You might like to set a timer, and free-write for five minutes, describing the scene in as much detail as you can manage. Once you have done that, select the key features that are the most important to your point-of-view character.
Flora and fauna: creating new species is a great deal of fun, as is revealing them to the reader. If your POV character is familiar with the flora and fauna, I recommend teasing the reader with snippets of description. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series, there is a creature called an “axehound“. This animal is never directly described, but snippets of detail about its six limbs and antennae inform the reader that this is no canine. If your character is meeting a monster for the first time, describe its most impressive feature first – as that will likely be the first thing the character notices.
How much Description is too much?
The worst thing you can do when trying to portray a scene in the reader’s mind is to bore them with details. Less, truly, is more.
Be aware of:
- too many adjectives
- over-describing a specific item or feature
- this says to the reader “this is important” and may set up a promise that requires pay-off at the end.
- can be used if the item or feature WILL be important later in the story.
- can also be used as a “red herring” to veil another item or feature that you are foreshadowing.
- what is important to your character: for example: a painter will view the scene differently from a soldier.
Exercise: Next time you travel somewhere different: whether it be another country, a trip to the countryside, or even a cafe, note down everything you see, smell, hear, and feel (taste too, if you’re feeling adventurous). Underline, or highlight, what you feel are the most interesting features. Then consider one of your characters and ask yourself, “how would they view this scene? What is the first thing they would notice?”
Where do writers get their ideas? We discussed the theme at our first Monday evening TalkWrite group for 2018.
Inspiration can come from the world around you:
- Locations: a creepy house; an idyllic location can inspire thoughts such as “what happened there?” or “what could happen there?”
- ie: “What if there was a body?”
- Experiences: for a lot of writers, their day-to-day lives may influence the stories they want to write. It might be funny anecdotes around your work, or you might visit a place or have some sort of experience that you wish to share – either through fiction or as a memoir.
- ie: what sort of interesting/weird things could happen at a science fiction convention?
- Something that makes you wonder:
- companies with interesting names
- ie, Merlin’s Couriers (what do they deliver?)
- ie, car advertisement, costs $19,999 plus ORC (What if your new car actually came with an orc?)
- companies with interesting names
- Newspaper articles: often they only tell you the outcome of an event – so what caused it? Why would someone act in such a way?
- Also Newspaper headlines: sometimes these sound more interesting than the actual story proves to be. So, write the more interesting one!
- Conversations: either overheard, or that you have participated in.
- Historic events/people: if you have a passion for a particular period or figure from history, that works as a great starting point for a story and fictionalised stories around real people are quite popular.
- Dreams: keep a notebook beside your bed, and remember, that’s where Stephenie Meyer found Edward.
- Songs: either the lyrics or the general theme of a song can prove inspiration to writing, just beware of breaching copyright by following or quoting the lyrics too closely.
Write the story you would enjoy reading
If you’re really stuck on what to write, sit down and make a list of the things that you enjoy the most in the books you’re reading and the movies you watch. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a shape of a fresh, new story within them. A prime example of this is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It has elements of Tolkien, Star Wars, and, whilst being somewhat generic, became phenomenally popular and was actually a really good read (although I confess, I never finished the series). Do you enjoy cozy murder mysteries and like to knit? Well, why not combine the two? (This is a surprisingly populated genre).
Twists on Familiar Stories/Ideas
- Retell a fairy tale with a new setting, time period or from a different character’s perspective.
- Write the story of a side character in an out-of-copyright classic novel (ie: Captain Hook).
- Take a fairly standard/cliched plot and twist or parody it
- ie: the standard “quest for the McGuffin” narrative of some fantasy novels
- Social or political commentary can also be used to create a powerful fantasy novel, a heart-breaking romance, a tense thriller, or a black comedy, depending on your personal genre tastes.
Many stories begin with a “What If?”
- What if cats really ruled the world?
- What if my neighbour began worshipping me as a god?
- What if aliens have been amongst us all this time?
Writing Prompts and Word Lists
There are various resources on the internet for finding inspiration. These may work for some authors – particularly those who just wish to ignite their writing fire.
- Images: they do say a picture paints a thousand words. Spend some time on pinterest looking up your favourite themes (or just “Story ideas”), but I’d recommend setting a timer. Find a picture that inspires you and see what questions you can create around it that might be turned into a story.
- Writing Prompts: these are generally a sentence or two about a situation ending with a few questions. Great for getting inspired to write a short story – or possibly taking it all the way to a novel!
- Word Lists: We did an exercise in a writing class where we were given three words (which included “rickshaw” and “encyclopedia”) and asked to write a short story around them. It was fun – and everyone’s story was completely different! Random word lists can be found on the Internet.
- There are also numerous dice and card decks available to make you think and create.
- Rory’s Story Cubes
- The Reckless Deck: to create spec-fic mash-ups
- The Storymatic: Pick up a card and watch the story unfold before your eyes!
- Dixit: Not specifically for writing inspiration, but has plenty of strange and beautiful illustrations.
- Once Upon a Time: Another game that can be used for inspiration, they even have a book available with how to use it to write your own fairytales.
Want to try and write a story based on prompts? Find below a picture (from Pixabay and a Creative Common) and a list of random words I’ve generated using an online generator.
Cemetery, cave, stem, compartment, suntan, candle, solid, rib, courage, constitution
If you write a story based on one, or both, let us know in the comments below!
Or if you have other ways of “finding your story”, we’d love to hear it.