The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting Continued

When you think about Scene Setting, you are usually describing a place. I say you in the plural sense in that you are the writer, the narrator, the POV character, the hero, the villain, everyone. So it is possible to get confused on which “you” you are at any given moment. Consequently, it might be helpful if you ask yourself some questions.

Who is doing the describing? Each character will have a different personality (ideally) and will notice different things in their surroundings. You have to make sure that your description matches the character. If you are writing in the POV of your villain, would that character notice the hero’s body language? Would your heroine notice things which are out of place? If  your POV character is a teenager would they notice dirty socks on the floor? If you are stuck on your scene setting, take some time and describe the scene from each character’s POV and see what each character notices. Or doesn’t notice. Doing this exercise can help you become aware of elements in your scene you hadn’t thought of, or show you problems you weren’t aware of.

Is your reader learning about your fictional world from your POV character or from the narrator? If the narrator is doing the description then the scene setting will be factual and objective, while the POV character could influence the description with opinions and emotions.

How detailed do you want to be? The POV you are using in your novel will determine how your show the details that you set in your scene. In 1st POV only your main character’s senses will be used to describe the setting, so they can’t see the villain hidden on the third floor of the building. 3rd POV may be the narrator, who can see much more than the 1st POV character, and who probably will notice the villain hiding on the third floor of the building. Sometimes the narrator will shift to become the 3rd POV character and the view will shift a bit too. It just depends on who you are when you are describing your scene.

It may help to view your setting as a character. A place can have personality. Santa Monica Pier will have a very different feel than New Orleans. A bedroom has a different feel than a bus station. What mood do you want to create for your reader? What mood do you want to create for your characters? Setting can incite reactions in the reader. Setting can be a driving force behind your character’s motives. Setting can show that something important is missing from your character’s life, which alters your character’s thinking. Setting can include time which also affects your character. Think about waiting around during some urgent moment. It create’s stress for your character and your reader. How does the scene setting create conflict and tension, or calm, or lust, or whatever is necessary for your POV character?

For newer writers, it is important to remember that just because you can visualize your scene perfectly, this does not mean that you have communicated this onto the page. Show your pages to someone and ask them what information they gather from your description. You may discover that the information you provided to your reader has been incorrectly assumed. For example, your fictional world is set in a desert, and you set your scene with fabulous description. You reader assumes sand for miles, hot wind, and mind-bending thirst. Ooops! You actually meant the Patagonian desert, which is a very cold desert, and where your character is in danger of freezing to death. When your character reaches for a coat, your reader is confused. After all, why would your character want a coat when it is so freakin’ hot? They throw your book in the recycle box. Not good.

Take the time to go through each scene with a fine-toothed comb. You may have significant revisions to do. What is relevant to the action of the scene? To your character’s motives? To the overall mood? What is relevant to each character? Does that differ from what is relevant to the narrator if the narrator is describing the scene? Is your description boring? If you describe your scene in the Patagonian desert, and you tell your reader that it is snowing, is that boring? Probably. Show your reader the setting instead of just telling them about it. Make the setting a visible background that your characters interact with. Show your character brushing away snow flakes from their hair instead of just telling your reader it is snowing. Make your scene setting dynamic, active, vibrant, scary, smelly, or whatever it needs to be for your character’s sake. It will make for a better reading experience. And a good reading experience translates into sales.

Setting your scene is more complicated than just simple description. But if you work it out in advance, take your time, think about what you are really trying to express and how to express it, your readers will love you for it.

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