Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Setting the Scene

When I started writing, I had trouble setting the scene. I put it all upfront, in one huge paragraph. I wanted to get all those pesky details in place, so I could get on with the action. The
problem was, the description wasn’t interesting. It worked for me as the writer because I needed a clear picture of the scene to be able to write it, but for the reader it was pure snoozeville.

It is important that the description comes out early in the scene. As a reader, I immediately start filling in details if they aren't given to me, and when I find out that I was picturing a bright sunny day when really it is dark and overcast, I am pulled out of the story, which is never a good thing.

But you can't dump all of the description in one huge paragraph like I did. No one wants to read that, and honestly, as a reader, I’ll miss some of the important details and later become confused, which isn't good either.

The descriptive details work best when they are embedded in the action of the scene, but it needs to be presented early enough to ground the reader.

Here are some key points to pulling it off.

1. POV, POV, POV. Description works best when it comes from the POV character. It allows the reader to get hints about the POV character as the scene is described.

A person who just lost a loved one is going to see a field of brightly colored flowers very differently than someone who has just fallen in love. The details they notice will give us insights into the personality and mental state of the POV characters. In other words, you can do double duty; describe the scene and give insights into the character in one sweep.

This will also make the descriptive passages more interesting because the description is connected to someone the reader is invested in. What is important to that character is important to the reader.

2. Describe through movement when you can. I have two reasons for this. First involves POV since movement will draw the character’s attention.

For example: the POV character knows it is fall, she isn't going to be thinking. "It is fall, and the leaves are on the ground." But if you have the autumn breeze stir up dried leaves, that movement would attract her attention; therefore, making the description feel natural.

The second reason is simply that dynamic things in general are more interesting than static things. For example: "A corner of the tarp covering the wood pile flapped in the wind" is a little more interesting than "A tarp covered the wood pile."

Of course this isn't always possible, but it is worth doing when it is.

3. Less is more. Part of the trick in descriptions is presenting the right details. Every piece of furniture in the room doesn't need to be described only enough to anchor the reader.

For example: "She shoved the pile of unfolded laundry to the other side of the couch, only to find a couple of books underneath. She sighed then picked them up and placed them on top of the teetering pile on the coffee table." This gives a pretty good impression that the house is a little messy with minimal description.

Pick the details carefully and be sure to describe anything that is unusual, like the old beat-up recliner in the posh apartment as seen in the sitcom Frasier.

4. Use all five senses, but don't violate POV. Sight isn't the only sense that is important. To immerse the reader into the scene, you need to use all of the senses when applicable. The thing is humans get desensitized to smells, sounds, and textures.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I can get pulled out of the story if things are described that the POV character shouldn't be aware of.

For example: if the character is in the middle of gardening when the scene opens, she wouldn't be aware of the sweet fragrance or the chattering of birds. She would be desensitized to it. She would only notice these things if something changed, like if the birds stopped chirping or the wind changed direction.

Remember not to violate POV. Only describe what the POV character would notice.

5. Work reminders in during the scene. Once the scene is set, you can't just ignore the setting. Don't let the characters be talking heads. Have them interact with their surroundings during the scene, like shading the sun from their eyes, or brushing away the dust from a picture frame. Don't make these actions random. Give them a purpose. Connect them to the emotional states of the characters.

Some parting thoughts.

There is a reason I used to dump all the description at the beginning. I needed to visualize the scene before I could write it. Now instead of writing it all out, I form a clear picture in my head, but I have a few tricks to help me make those images really vivid.

Sometimes I look up pictures on the internet to give me some strong visuals. Another good idea is to keep a stock of old scenic calendars for references.

I draw maps, floor plans, layouts of any place I use more than once. Pretty nerdy, but it helps me keep everything straight.

And finally, I like to get out into the real world, look around, breath it in, experience it. Sometimes in my head, I try to describe what I'm seeing, smelling, hearing, or feeling. Yeah, I’m one those people who is always thinking about writing. :)

That's all I got for now. If you have any secrets to setting the scene, please share. :)



  1. It is truly amazing how much thought you have to put into every aspect of your writing. I used to be a high school English teacher, and students always complained when we would analyze the authors' words. They would always think that I was attributing symbolism and meaning to the words that the author didn't intend. I think some people (especially teenagers) like to think that writing is easy, and that English teachers unnecessarily complicate texts. However, your post illustrates just how much meaning, subtext and thought is layered within the words, even through a simple description of the setting. mm

  2. I always have trouble setting the scene. I use hardly any description at all, simply because I already know what the scene looks like. I'm working on it, but I have a long way to go yet.

  3. I like the idea of envisioning the setting before I start. I'm generally too worried about getting plot or character right to really stop and think about the scene.

    I do see a lot of stories with all the description in one paragraph at the front. I'll definitely be thinking more about that in my own stories.

  4. I find this hard as well--you have some great advice. Another (related) thing I have a hard time working in is character description. I think some of your ideas would work well with that as well. Thanks.

  5. I love these tips, MaryAnn. Especially the describe through movement. I never thought of that before.

    Great post!

  6. Excellent stuff! I love it when authors weave description in in a way that moves the story forward (still working at it myself). Thanks for the tips.

  7. @Imogen- I feel the same way. I'm usually impatient to get to the action. I usually work on description in revisions.

    @Sabrina- Some writers are really good at putting the description upfront. I just wasn't. I think there has to be some tension or mystery woven into the description to keep it interesting.

    @Melanie- I do have similar problems with character descriptions, especially if my POV character already knows them. But yeah, some of this can apply to that too.

    Thanks everyone for commenting. :)

  8. Those are all great tips, MaryAnn. I think it's interesting how you talk about only including what the POV character *would* notice - which is different from only including what he or she *could* notice. I've seen this more subtle kind of violation a lot, too - probably in my own writing.

    Getting out in the real world is the hardest one, I think, but probably the most important :)

    Great post!


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