Setting the scene is as important as creating real-to-life characters. It is an art form and you are the artist. As an artist, we have a plethora of ways to interact with those that wish to be entertained. We act, we draw, we paint, we write, we tell stories or make movies. We sing songs or play instruments, dance, decorate, play sports.
Writing, however, is the only art form that lets the one interacting with our art decide things for themselves. Readers use their brain to put all the visual pieces together from the words on the page.
Writing is Powerful
If I drew a picture of an overweight man that was balding and had a stain on his shirt, you could look at that picture and know exactly how he looks, how I want him to look for you.
If I just write the words though, as the reader, you can make the man slightly overweight, or so fat he can’t sit up. You can make his balding head have a comb-over, or only have 4 hairs waving in the wind. The stain could be blood, or grease, or vomit, or pea soup and the shirt could be an Oxford, tank top, or a t-shirt with some superhero logo on it. The choice is yours.
This is the power of the written word. When done correctly, writing can be the most powerful art form in the world.
Setting the scene is just as important as what goes on in the scene. So, to help you out a bit here are some tips to help you draw the reader into your world while still letting them make it their own.
Tip: Enough With the Fluff
Don’t Over-Write. It is easy to boost your word count with a million adjectives. You can have a room in a house in your mind that you want to bring to life for the reader (and you should) just be careful not to state every little detail.
If the floor is carpeted, say it is carpeted, no need to state that it is a slate grey microfibre twill with scotch guard coating to prevent stains.
You can say that the carpet is plush, but there is no need to say that it is so thick and soft that Bob’s feet sink into the plush carpet, matting it down long enough to see his footprints long after he’s left.
Tip: Keep Your Scenes Simple
Don’t Complicate. When you are writing the scene visuals, like the room mentioned above, put the items in the scene but don’t make the items a scene each. If there are a table and a couch and a love seat and a desk with a lamp, say so. However, avoid talking about each item in its own paragraph.
The reader shouldn’t know that the lamp was a Victorian-era desk lamp that still uses oil instead of electricity but it has been fitted with modern electronics so it uses an LED bulb instead of a wick. Unless this information is vital to your story to move it forward, let the reader put whatever type of lamp they want.
Perhaps when I read about a lamp on a desk I picture a natural wood desk made from a large slice of an old oak tree with a $4 Wal-Mart bendy desk lamp sitting on it. Who cares? I don’t need to know every nuance, just what is important.
Tip: Give Your Readers Freedom
Let The Reader Fill The Scene. This one is hard, but it is very powerful. The layout, for example, the living room I’ve mentioned above, needs to fit with the story so far. So far, the reader has been able to choose what each scene looks like. If I take that choice away now, the room won’t match what they are expecting and you will lose their interest.
You can enter the large door, and walk around the over-sized coffee table, making you feel like Alice after she ate the cake and shrunk down a size. Everything seems larger than life in the room and sitting on the couch makes you feel as though you are sinking into another world.
However, I don’t need to tell them that it took 12 steps to get to the couch or that it was placed directly adjacent to the wall under a large picture of Gandhi. Put the items in the room, let the reader decide where they go and what they look like.
Tip: Know Your Surroundings
Scenes Have 7 Sides. It can be hard to imagine, but as a writer, you have to think outside the box. You never know what is going to be important to the reader, or what little detail will set the entire scene off for them and make them crave more.
When setting a scene remember there are seven sides: you have the 4 walls and a floor. The easiest 5 sides to write about (and you will—90% of the time) you also have a ceiling, and this is overlooked a lot. Ceilings are non-important in most rooms, but sometimes it is imperative to show that amazing chandelier or those exposed beams where the raccoon can hide.
The seventh side though is most often overlooked… it’s the other side of the wall. If you are in our living room we have discussed this entire post, then the 7th side is outside the window. If our scene is outside then it’s inside that house, or inside the tree, we are standing next too. It may not be important. You may leave it out most of the time, but you cannot forget it is there.
Tip: Don’t Neglect Nature
Never Forget Senses and Weather. When the reader walks into a room in their real-life they use all 5 senses that they have. As a writer, you need to fill all those senses when you lead them into a room. How it looks, obviously, but also any sounds. Is there a draft whistling from the broken window? Or the floorboards that creak on the other side of the room?
Feeling is important too, the couch is there, but is it leather? Canvas? Soft? Don’t be afraid of details, just don’t overdo it. You also have to remember that people smell things, so you have to write for the nose, as well. Maybe the guy in the room is eating a boiled egg and a tuna and cress sandwich. When he speaks we are going to know it.
The odor can waft or be stagnant. It’s on the air, it is the air, or it’s from some unknown source. We often overlook taste. It is important though. Perhaps the MC takes a bite of that sandwich and discovers the tuna is rotten. Write about it.
Lastly, don’t forget to write about the weather. Even when you are inside that 7th wall is important. It can set a mood. Imagine the room is lit by a single lamp and the rain and wind is pounding against the window. This is a lot different mood than if the lamp is only on out of habit. More so if the sun is beating into the room through the open window.
Writing is art. We write for an audience just like an orchestra plays for one. Make it enjoyable. Make it palpable, make it worthwhile.