The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting

Why do you need to worry about Scene Setting? It is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know when and/or where the story takes place, they will become confused and put down your book. Given the short period of time that readers will browse through your book before deciding if they like it enough to purchase it, this means a confused reader of your book is a buyer of someone else’s book. Good for them. Not good for you.

Consequently, it is of utmost importance that you place your characters within the scene (each scene) in a way your readers will understand. Scene Setting expresses where your characters are in your fictional world. Scene Setting allows your readers to visualize what your fictional world looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, sounds like. Scene Setting may also clarify when a scene takes place. Think flashback, or dream sequence, or historical era. Note that each new scene which is a change of location, or a change in time, or a change of POV, requires some Scene Setting.

As a reminder set off your new scene within chapters with a scene break. A scene break looks like this:


You can have several scenes per chapter. But for each new scene you will need to create some degree of Scene Setting. Think POV for example. One character sees the other character and what that other character looks like. Then there is a scene break. You then write in the POV of the second character who will see different things than the first character. Use only one POV character per scene. Writing multiple POV characters in the same scene is head hopping and will give your readers whiplash and confusion. Remember your confused readers above? They are now reading someone else’s book.

You can also write a complete chapter with only one scene. Whether  you write one scene per chapter or several depends on your personal writing style, story structure, plot, characters, POV, etc and is a choice that only you can make. There is no rule for the number of scenes per chapter. Just remember to establish place and/or time in each new scene.

You can establish time and place in several ways, including naming the specific place, such as Rome, Italy, or the YMCA pool. You can describe the location using the five senses. Sometimes your scene will be set inside some event like the Olympics, or the Civil War, and you will use some specific information which will help your reader become immersed in that event. If your scene is set in a specific time you can also mention that time, or day, or date when you set up your scene.

Do consider sketching out your setting for each scene, and each chapter as you write. Even if you think your reader doesn’t or won’t need it, do it anyway. It is much easier for your editor, critique group, and/or beta readers to delete too much information deemed unnecessary than it is for them to imagine a setting that isn’t there.

For a good visual example of Scene Setting, watch Gladiator. Maximus  and his fellow gladiators enter the Coliseum for the first time. The crowd is overwhelming. As the view of the stadium circles around it becomes clear how many people are in attendance. This scene is set to provide a clear understanding of the Roman Empire’s popular view of brutality, and also to show the place where Maximus must conquer death.

Next: More on Scene Setting

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