Setting the Scene

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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?”