Some of this has been covered in previous posts, but I just couldn’t talk about good scene-setting and not mention description, ’cause what good is the perfect setting if you can’t convey it to the reader? So once you’ve figured out the right spot for your story, here are a few tips for describing it well.
Choose details carefully. For each scene, figure out what you’re trying to get across. Then choose details that achieve that purpose.
The knee-high stalks snatched at Nora’s skirts as she tore through the wheat field. Over her panting breath, she could hear the plants whispering, “You’re late, you’re late.” Two years she’d been waiting for this, and now she was about to miss it.
The winter air burned her lungs, but she kept running. She cleared the field, passed the lone hemlock, and raced around the side of the house to find everyone waiting in the yard.From this description you can gather that Nora is in a rural setting, probably a farm, in the winter. The sky may be full of snow clouds, cows might be grazing in an adjoining field, the wind may be whistling through the hemlock branches, but we don’t know for sure because those details aren’t shared. Enough clues are given to create a picture in the reader’s mind. When it comes to picking the right details to describe your setting, remember that you don’t have to describe everything in sight. It’s also a good idea to make your setting do double duty, whether that’s characterizing, establishing mood, or building tension. This is discussed further in part 3 of this series. If your setting description includes one of these secondary purposes, know what that purpose is so you can choose the details that will get that across to readers.
Engage all the senses. For the most part, we’re visual creatures, and when we describe something, we use a lot of visual clues. But readers don’t want to stand back and look at the scene. They want to be immersed in it, to feel like they’re there. To do this, include details that show how the scene looks, but also how it sounds, feels, tastes, and smells. In the above example, readers have the opportunity to not only see the field and the lone tree, they also can feel the stalks snatching at their clothes, hear the plants’ rustle, taste the cold air burning in the throat. Clearly, every scene doesn’t call for every sense to be represented. But if you scatter enough multi-sensory clues throughout the story, you’ve gone a long way toward sucking the reader in.
Use varying vehicles. When introducing a scene, it’s tempting to rattle off a bunch of details in paragraph form so we can check the setting off our list and move on to more important things. But even characterization and plot don’t stand alone; they’re scattered in bits and pieces throughout the story, intertwined with other elements. That’s how the setting needs to be worked in, too. Share it a piece at a time—through narrative, definitely—but also through dialogue, internal thoughts, and action. Spreading it out is a great way to ensure that your reader doesn’t skim past long paragraphs to get to what’s next.Be voice consistent and character specific. When describing the setting, remember that it’s not actually you doing the describing. That job belongs to your point-of-view character. So…
· Choose details that your character would notice.
· Use words and phrases that your character would use, and keep sentence structure, sentence length, and style consistent. If your character talks in a quick, rabbity style but your descriptions are shown through rambling complex sentences, your reader will sense that something’s off.
· Remember that your character’s mood should greatly affect the way she sees the scene and how she describes it.
· Different characters may describe the same scene differently, so if your story is being told from varying viewpoints, make sure the descriptions are true to each character. And, by the way, this technique is a great way to convey characterization through your descriptions.
· As with every writing element, keep the context in mind. If the scene is fast-paced and active, there’s going to be less detail because your character wouldn’t stop to admire the frescoes while she’s running from an axe-murderer.
If you like, read on to the next post:
Part 3: Maximizing The Setting
Part 4: World Building
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.