Image Credits: Most images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Northumberland photo taken by me, Allison Symes. Images of my book covers from Chapeltown Books.
Scene setting is one of the invisible “tools” a writer uses to make a convincing story though it can apply to non-fiction work too. What it involves is working out what a reader needs to know and then figuring out the best way of getting that across.
For example, for this post, I will be looking at different ways of setting scenes I have used (and continue to use). I will share what I think are the most useful tips (based on what I’ve found most useful). There will be things I choose to leave out given I want to focus on the most relevant points only.
That is also true for fiction. In my fiction work, I need to decide who my characters are, what their situation is, and how much of that a reader needs to know. I always know far more about my characters than I put into the finished tales.
This is because I need a fully rounded picture of who my characters are and what motivates them. I will then understand what they would do in any given circumstance and, just as importantly, what they would not do and why. So in selecting what I need to share, I am setting scenes. The scenes a reader needs to know and no more.
Sometimes I get my characters to set the scene directly and one effective way of doing this is via dialogue. Readers pick up a great deal of information from what characters say to each other. They can also pick up on what is not said directly but what is inferred.
For example, from my From Light to Dark and Back Again story, Gratitude, my opening line is ‘Found it?’ Lily, a water nymph, watched Flo leave the lake.
Here I am setting the scene by showing you two characters, a two word description of what one of them is (and it is inferred the other character, Flo, must be the same species), a setting (the lake) and a situation (something has been lost). That has set a scene with a lot of information in it.
But I am also showing attitude here. We all know what it is like to be hunting for an object we’ve mislaid. So we can intelligently guess at the tone of Lily’s voice as well. That’s a lot in one scene, one line.
Scenes can vary in length, naturally depending on the kind of story you’re writing. I would expect a scene in a novel to be far longer than what I would come up with for a piece of flash fiction. But dialogue is a powerful way of getting information across to a reader. That information must move the story on in some way too. (Anything that doesn’t should be cut. Why would you need it?).
One thing to be wary of though is not to get your characters into conversational ping-pong. This is often where they are telling each other what they must already know. This acts as an “info dump”/exposition to a reader and should be cut.
I kept Lily’s conversation to the point! I didn’t need her to tell Flo to get in the lake and hurry up and find whatever has been lost. I just showed Lily responding to the situation. That shows a reader the scene. That was enough.
The Bridport Prize describes flash fiction as the “art of just enough”. It’s an apt description but you can apply the tightness of flash fiction writing to longer works. It will sharpen those longer works up and increase the pace of your writing.
I am wary of using too much of this for scene setting because it is too easy to go overboard with it. I use just enough to put appropriate pictures into my readers’ heads.
In my The Poison Pen, I start with She dipped her quill into the bottle of black ink and kept writing. Get one ingredient out of place or written down incorrectly and the spell would fail.
I don’t need to tell you the character is a magical one here – I’ve shown it by the words “the spell”. What matters here is you need to see someone writing something. You then go on to find out what they’re writing.
I always ask myself when I’m editing my piece if a reader needs to know this. If they do, it stays in. If not, out it comes. Sometimes I will have a reasonable amount of description in but realise on looking at the story again, I can trim it or rephrase it so it is “tighter”. I focus on what I call the telling details, what the reader must know to have a clear sense of the scene I’m setting. Nothing more, nothing less.
Novelists, naturally, have more room to work in, word count wise, so can expand more but even then everything in the scene you are setting has to be there for a good reason. But the right piece of description will conjure up a scene in a reader’s mind brilliantly.
I can picture the London of Dickens’s Oliver Twist for example because of how Dickens describes it. He did need to describe everything, including setting, fully, because so many of his readers would never visit London. He needed to show them something of what it was like.
We don’t need to do that. Living in the film and TV age means we can infer much more and save the descriptive parts for only what a reader needs to know. (If there is a Golden Rule of writing, it is that – what does the reader need to make sense of this?).
By the time this goes out, I will have returned from a fabulous week in Northumberland. Glorious scenery and views, especially beautiful at autumn. Will I use any of that in future stories of mine? Possibly. I could take a relevant “snippet” from a place I’ve visited and put that in a story.
If I decide to put my character on a remote beach, I may well have in my mind’s eye the beautiful beach at Bamburgh. Rather than describe its physical characteristics, I will have this in my mind as I conjure up the spirit of the place.
What will matter here is my character is on remote beach. It does not necessarily have to be a particular one. What I can do is make mention of the vast expanse of beach and the dunes and leave it there. But it would help me enormously to have an image in my mind, backed up by my photos, of a likely setting for my character.
I deliberately mix up how I set scenes. It keeps things interesting for me and, I hope, my readers. This is also where reading widely across genres will help writers. You take in how other authors set their scenes and work out why you like/dislike the approach they have taken.
For non-fiction, the main scene setting is in laying out your topic and then breaking it up with bullet points, break out boxes etc as each of these things set the scene for what follows.
The ultimate challenge for any writer is to make their work appealing to readers and a good way to lure readers in is to present scenes where they have to find out what happens next and they can only do that by reading on.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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