HOW TO SET THE SCENE IN A BOOK
Let's talk about writing. Specifically, how to set the scene. Setting the scene basically means orienting the reader. You're letting them know which character they're following, where they're at, when they're at that place, and what the hell they're trying to do. In other words, you're establishing three points. The character, the where and when (some people separate these into two points, but I like to put them into one), and the intention of the scene. I'm going through these points one by one covering all my tips and tricks for setting the scene.
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Number 1: Establishing the Character
Establishing the character your readers will follow is easy. All you gotta do is say their name. Boom! You're done. But it's important to ground the character in the scene. You want to make readers feel as though the character is there, physically, in that moment. This will make the book feel a lot more real, plus it'll make the reader feel as though they're standing alongside the character.
There are two handy tricks for grounding a character within a scene. The first trick is to use your five senses. This will not only help to describe the location, but it'll also help readers to feel what the character is feeling.
Start with the easiest sense, sight. What is the character seeing? This is when you describe the look of the space around them, which we’ll elaborate on later.
Next is smell. A lot of writers neglect this sense, but smell can be extremely transportive for the reader. Scent creates an instant reaction. Smell can be sexy, like cologne. It can be comforting like chocolate chip cookies. It can be disgusting, like piss . . .
Taste is another neglected sense because unless a character is eating, we don't really think about it. But what if they just got done with a fight and they can still taste the blood on their lips? That alone creates an instant tone.
Touch is one of the most important senses because people have strong reactions to it. Touch creates pleasure. Touch creates pain.
And lastly, sound, which can create drastically different tones when combined with other senses. The rustling of leaves can be a calming sound if it’s a sunny day and there's a warm breeze. The rustling of leaves can be a horrifying sound if it's the dead of night and we're hiding in the woods from a murderer . . .
Keep in mind you don't have to use every sense. If the character tastes nothing, leave it alone. But conveying the appropriate senses will have a profound impact on your reader’s immersion.
The last trick for grounding your character is to establish a tone or energy. Think about how your character is feeling or how you want your reader to be feeling at that moment. If your character is depressed, the tone should be depressing. That means no warm, fuzzy descriptors of the soft touch of a silk blanket or the soothing scent of lavender. Think about descriptors that feel sad or empty, like cold, stale air, or dim lighting.
If your character is depressed in a beautiful, well-lit, colorful location, don’t describe that location as is. Describe it through the lens of your depressed character. Maybe the colors are blurred, the laughter is muted, and the hugs are barely discernible against their flesh. Remember, the readers are experiencing the story through this character. That means their interpretation matters significantly and you want to ground the scene within that character’s viewpoint.
Number 2: The When and Where
This is basically setting the physical scene. You describe the time and location. We do this to avoid confusing the reader. We let them know, “Hey, it's Tuesday! And we're in the library!” Except we use much prettier language.
The first and easiest part of this is establishing the time. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can describe the appearance of a sunset; this lets the reader know that the time is sunset. You can have the character check their watch. Now the readers know the exact time! If you're setting the scene after a time skip, you can establish the season by describing the hot summer air or the chill of winter. Again, we're tapping into our five senses. They serve double duty for grounding the character, as well as establishing the time of the scene.
The second part of this step is establishing the where, or location. This is where a lot of writers fuck up. They get caught up in inconsequential details that don’t establish the location nearly as effectively as they think. Here are some tips for establishing the where of your scene without bugging the crap out of your readers.
First, avoid layouts. "There is a desk against the back wall, with a window to the right wall, and a bed to the left wall with an end table to its right.” That was both boring and confusing. When writers give an exact layout, they're playing twister with the reader’s mind. It ain't fun! Readers envision as they’re reading. They connect the dots as they go. When you start putting windows to the left and closets to the right, you rearrange the furniture that they’ve already established in their mind. Additionally, saying the exact placement of furniture does not communicate what it looks like . . .
I know there's a bed against the left wall, but I have no idea what the bed or the wall actually looks like. And does the bed even matter? Probably not. But the ambiance, style, and energy sure do!
Second, avoid measurements. The room was six feet by six feet, the ceiling 15 feet high, with wood paneling six inches in width. Congratulations! You just described a blueprint! Lots of newbie writers revert to listing exact measurements when setting a scene, and it's a big mistake! First of all, measurements are not important. No one's whipping out a ruler alongside your book. Second, it's boring as hell to read. Third, it tells the reader nothing of value about the setting.
Instead of giving exact measurements, here's an idea–use generalizations. “It was a small space.” The end. That gives the reader everything they need to know about the setting in as few words as possible. Now, you can move on to the descriptors that are actually valuable to the reader.
Speaking of which, the third tip is to focus on colors, texture, and material. This is what will really transport readers and give them the visual they crave. They don't care if the desk is against the left wall; they care about the color of the desk or the material it's made of. Is it a sleek desk with slate legs and a glass tabletop? Or is it a mahogany desk, polished to a shine? No one cares about the height of the wall, but they do care if the wall is covered in faded floral wallpaper that’s spattered with browning blood. Yeeeesh.
These are the descriptors that linger in your reader’s mind. One, because they tap into the five senses. Texture is touch. Color and material are sight. And two, because they're engaging! Color creates an emotional response in people. Material can dictate era or tone.
The last tip I have for establishing the where of your story is relinquishing a little bit of control. The reason so many writers struggle with setting the scene is because of their deep need to control the minds of their readers. I've got news for you: You can be as thorough as you’d like, but readers are still going to interpret your text based on their own personal biases and experiences. Let go of the need to have everyone interpret your setting the exact way you see it, because I promise, no matter how much detail you provide, people are gonna see it the way they want to see it.
People think for themselves. Brains are funny like that! This need for control is what encourages writers to make a lot of scene-setting mistakes, like excessive world-building that doesn't benefit the story. Focus instead on creating beautiful and transportive imagery. People will feel much more connected to your work, and that’s exactly what you want! Now that we've grounded the character, and figured out the when and where of our scene, we move on to the final step.
Number 3: Establishing the Scene’s Intention
Sometimes people call this establishing the character's goals, needs, or conflict. This is usually the last thing referenced when you are setting the scene. You establish the character. You let the readers know what time it is, and where the character’s at, and then you dish out the intention. Portraying the intention usually requires digging into the emotion of your character because quite often, the emotion directly correlates to their goal or conflict. For example, if a character wakes up in a dungeon, their goal is probably going to be figuring out why they're there, what happened to them, and how to get out.
You can easily establish this goal in a number of ways. One is narrative. Simply stating that she doesn't know where she is or why the fuck she's there is enough to let readers know that her goal is to get the hell out of there. Two is dialogue. The character can whisper, “What the hell?” This lets readers know they have no idea where they are, and that in itself is the conflict. They in danger! Three is inner monologue, or the character's thoughts. In this situation, the character can simply think to themselves, Where am I? Again, we’re presenting the reader with the character's goal, and in this case, it’s to figure out where they are, and the conflict is they're in a dungeon. ’Nuff said.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Once you've tackled these three steps, you did it! You set the scene! Now, you just got to do it again for every new scene throughout the entirety of your story . . . Enjoy!
What is your favorite way to set the scene? Let me know in the comments below!
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