Friday, December 7th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Setting the Scene

School Bus Arriving to drop kids off at school.The setting in a story is the place and time the story occurs. Every story has one. It lends context to the tale.

The settings for different types of stories will be different, as will the approach to creating them. One thing to consider is the audience reading the book.

For instance, the setting for a story taking place in modern Washington, DC might include a description of the Lincoln Memorial, the terrible traffic, diesel fumes from buses, protesters on the corner, etc. It might include some details on the weather: the oppressive heat of a July sun baking all that marble or the sleet of a November rain. And that’s it: just enough detail to ground the reader to location and atmosphere. He’ll fill in the rest with his own imagination.

A period romance might include the description of a brownstone townhouse in England, gas lamps on the sidewalk (if you’re in the rich part of town) or ragamuffin children (on the poor side of town). It will usually infer the economic status of the heroine, and some background, so we know how she got to this place and time. And, it might include a description of the historical events taking place, so that the reader gets an idea of the main character’s thoughts and motives. This description might go on for several paragraphs, because this audience enjoys rich detail.

Science Fiction readers will want explicit details on science, mechanics, atmosphere, politics, etc. But you don’t want to include detail, for detail’s sake. For instance, while you’re setting the scene, if you have machine that creates breathable atmosphere on a planet formerly known for its deadly gases, you don’t need to explain how that works…unless one of your characters is knowledgeable about it, or questions how it works, AND that information is crucial to the story.

If specific details aren’t important, but you point them out, you’ll either a) bore the reader, or b) leave him wondering why you included the detail. You don’t want that bouncing around in the reader’s head when she should be enjoying the story.

Also, a good rule of thumb when setting the scene is to include details related to the five senses. So, describe:

  1. what is seen
     
  2. what is heard
     
  3. what is felt (or touched)
     
  4. what is smelled, and,
     
  5. what is tasted
     

The hard part is writing the scene without making it sound like a checklist, like this:

The chaotic barnyard was filled it with animals. I could hear the cows mooing, the chickens squawking, and in the background somewhere, an old hound dog. The dirt was hard-packed beneath my feet, and I could feel every pebble through my shoe. Someone hadn’t mucked out the barn in ages. I could smell the dung all the way across the pasture. The wind kicked up, blowing dust in my face. I could taste the corn feed Farmer Brown just strew for the hens.

Terrible!

Here’s Your Prompt:

Here are a few suggested locations and time periods, choose one and write the scene.

  • A junior high school in the US, mid-1970s.
     
  • Modern day in a Scottish castle.
     
  • A 1950s traveling carnival.
     
  • A rock ‘n’ roll concert during the holidays, and the singer is late.
     
  • Thanksgiving Dinner – the week before Thanksgiving.
     
  • A fictional planet, during a civil war.
     
  • The coast of any continent, 1800s, during a powerful storm.
     
  • Today, in your home town.
     
  • England, during the middle ages, in a small cottage
     
  • Santa’s workshop, in July.
     
  • Alice’s Wonderland – only set the scene of somewhere Alice didn’t go.
     

If none of these strike your fancy, choose your own time and place.

Good luck!

1 comment to Writing Prompt: Setting the Scene

  • Kelly, it’s an excellent post, and it really points out the challenges of scene-setting. I love many of the items on your list of prompts, too! With regard to details, I’ve found for most scenes there’s power in the number three. Fewer details than that are not enough to put the reader there. More than that can get boring, like a checklist, as you pointed out. Selecting just the right details is the real trick.

    Also, if your story comes back later to the same scene, it’s interesting to describe it again, without as many words and using different details to highlight either how the scene has changed, or the character’s mood or perception of the scene has.

    In this age of character-driven stories where readers also want a well-paced plot, scene-setting often takes a distant third place. But it’s the scene that puts the reader there. Your blog post explains how to do that well. Thanks!

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