Writing Wednesdays: How to set the scene in your story

September 17, 2014
How do you set the scene in your story?

Setting can be one of the most important (and difficult) things when writing a book. It builds things up in your imagination and creates more of an ambiance, and without some description of where things are going on, stories would be a lot more bland.

I recently had people ask me what they can do to set the scene, and how much description is too much – that’s what this advice post is all about. Settings and descriptions.

Here we go!

Use your senses.

Or, rather, your character’s senses. Let your reader know what they see, hear, smell, feel, taste. Let’s say the setting is high school, start of the day. They can smell the damp from the rain outside that’s soaked all the students, and the sharp lemon of cleaning products; they can hear chattering and laughter and the voice of a teacher calling above it all, trying to stop a student running in the corridor; they can see the gum stuck on the corners of walls and trodden into the floor, the glint of lights bouncing off the lockers, a swarm of heads of students ahead of them; they’re being bumped about by elbows and shoulders, and someone stands on their feet.

Obviously, you don’t need to use each sense all the time – but one or two dotted throughout each scene will help.

If the character is seeing somewhere for the first time, you can go to town on your descriptions!

A paragraph or two here talking all about the place, with lots of description, is okay in this instance – the story is from the protagonist’s perspective and they’ll be taking lots of things in (like in someone’s room they’re seeing for the first time, for instance). But in any other circumstance, a few lines will do. (This is the next point.)

So how much is too much? 

Typically – at the start of a new scene/chapter – you only need a couple of lines, if that, to set the scene. Maybe mention the weather (ah, pathetic fallacy!) and think about what’s really worth noting on. Sometimes, you don’t need much scene-setting at all. Mention that it’s the next Tuesday and halfway through the school day, and that’s all that you need before you can jump into the scene itself.

Too much description – like a few paragraphs of somewhere you’ve already described, or half a page on anything, is sometimes too much. I mean, if it’s a strange place on an alien planet, that’s different. But say it’s set in high school, we all know what that sort of thing looks like. I’d say half a page is about as much as you need.

And try to break up the description with actions.

 If the wind is chilly, then mention that the character’s teeth are chattering, that they hug themselves to try and keep warm, button up their cardigan against the cold, that kind of thing. 

Intersperse it with some dialogue, too. 

It’ll make it easier for your readers to digest, and for any readers who get bored by descriptive pieces, it won’t put them off.

You might also like this post by the awesome Non Pratt about writing dialogue.

When should you set the scene?

At the start of the scene is usually a good place to set the scene. It doesn’t need to be the first line, however. You might have a few lines of dialogue, and then mention that they’re on a bench at the park – and it’s noisy, because there’s a bunch of kids playing baseball, and even though it’s hot, the sky is full of grey clouds – and that’s it. Sometimes that’s all you need. Just do it early on in the scene, so readers know what’s going on, and don’t get confused.

‘Show Not Tell’ can come in handy here.

You guys know the ‘show not tell’ rule, right? (Read this post for more on Show Not Tell.) 

You could avoid explaining the setting altogether just by ‘showing’. For instance: your character slumps on their elbows, bored of learning about trigonometry because they’ll never get the hang of it, and they roll up their sleeves because it’s too warm in the classroom. Bam, scene set, minimal description required, actions used – you get that they’re in maths class and they’re bored of it. It’s useful if you don’t want to try setting every scene the same way.

Pathetic fallacy, ah, our best friend.

i.e. using weather to set the tone. It’s a dreary, grey day, drizzling and cold. It’s bright, the grass is fresh cut, flowers are blooming under a bright blue sky. Et cetera. Cheesy, sometimes, but it still works!

And hey, the scene doesn’t always depend on description.

You can set the scene using emotive language, actions and dialogue. You don’t necessarily need descriptions to set the tone and the scene!

What's your best advice for setting the scene? Share in the comment section!

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