Setting the Scene

Setting the scene is something many writers struggle with. Alas, it must be done. Characters can’t just be running around in white space, right? Here are some tips to help you conquer scene-setting.

Why Set the Scene?

In order for readers to visualize your story, your characters need to clearly be somewhere. Your readers need to be able to navigate the surroundings with your characters, and be drawn into their experience. The way you set the scene can tell the readers a lot about what your characters are experiencing (and why), and how they should feel about it. For example, let’s say your character is dying of dehydration. Describing the hot, high-noon sun, the dry air without breeze, and the burning sand underneath them will give your readers a much better sense of what your character is feeling. It can transport them into the scene and create empathy for the character. If you hadn’t talked about the setting at all, the reader would likely be confused as to why the character was so dehydrated. If you only mentioned that it was a desert at noon, the confusion may be gone, but they still wouldn’t have a good visualization of the scene or connection to the character’s struggle. Setting the scene is vital to transporting readers and making your character’s struggles real and impactful.

How Much to Describe

Have you ever been reading a book, and the descriptions went on so long that you forgot what was even happening? What about where there was so little description you had no real idea of what was happening in your head? It’s important to have the right amount of description when setting the scene. Too much or too little will make your reader feel lost or frustrated. If the setting is a farm, you don’t need to describe the shape of each piece of straw. Your readers don’t care. Unless it’s necessary for the plot, you should avoid describing tons of tiny details. If you have enough key details, your reader’s imagination will transport them, and they will see the farm how they envision it. It’s never going to be your exact vision of the scene, and it doesn’t need to be for them to enjoy it. On the other side of the coin, there are underwriters like myself, who need to describe their scenes more. You can’t simply tell your readers that your protagonist is on a farm. That doesn’t give the reader any picture at all. You need to include important details about the scene to show your reader where they are.

The exact amount of detail to include can vary,–some readers like more than others–but you should consciously be making that call and considering whether you are over or under doing it. Myself, I tend to use a small paragraph to set the scene initially, and then I sprinkle in some additional, typically less-crucial ideas throughout the scene.

What to Describe

As I said before, generally you want to describe location and time. Describing time can involve telling the reader about the era, time of day, the season, etc. Describing location can include land-marks, the overall look (architecture, streets, nature, etc.), the things going on (cars honking, people walking, etc.), or the atmosphere (eg.: setting the mood with multiple senses).

The senses are the most important thing you have in your arsenal to transport readers to a location. We understand and navigate the world with our senses, so using them will allow your reader to understand and navigate your scene. You can describe the sight of moldy, stained white walls with the paint peeling off to give them a clear picture and disgusted feeling. You can describe the sound of waves gently hitting the side of the boat and crickets’ melodious chirping in the marsh to create a scene that feels peaceful. You can describe the faint smell of pine, still on her late father’s jacket, to create a longing or nostalgic mood. I could go on. You don’t need to use all of the senses,  but using at least a couple to transport your reader is vital in setting the scene.

In short, setting the scene is vital to creating a vivid picture of the story in the reader’s mind, and to creating empathy for characters. Be careful not to over or under set the scene, and be sure to use different senses to let the reader feel where they are.

Do you tend to over or under describe scenes? As a reader, how much description do you like in a novel?

I post new advice on Saturdays, so please click “follow”  to keep learning more!  What would you like me to blog about next? Do you have any questions about writing? Please be sure to let me know in the comments, or contact me via social media! 🙂

With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!




2 thoughts on “Setting the Scene

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  1. I tend to write and leave, then come back to it much later…weeks, days and get a feel for if I’ve over or under-explained any facet of the piece. To answer your question, I wouldn’t say there is a perfect amount, just what works.

    Liked by 1 person

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