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We're Not in Kansas, Anymore: The importance of scene setting

When we’re writing a story, we often spend a lot of time thinking about who our characters are going to be and what is going to happen to them. We toil over our protagonist’s backstory, making sure we understand their personality and why they are who they are. We sketch out our plot lines (or daydream about them, if we’re a “pantser”), imagining all the twists and turns we are going to make our intrepid characters navigate. But many writers spend much less time thinking about where all of this action is going to take place.

The setting of your story plays an important role in your book. A description of the setting gives your readers a sense of time and place and provides them with context, someplace to imagine your characters residing. But the setting is much more than just a backdrop for your story and should be chosen purposefully for its effect on your characters, your plot, and your readers. For example, the setting you choose can help set the mood of the book. A book set in Seattle during a particularly rainy winter will have a very different feel than a book set in Phoenix in July. The location of your book will also affect how your characters talk and the vocabulary that they use, which influences how we feel about them. A character with a Southern drawl will not be received the same way that a character speaking in a clipped New England accent will. The setting can also evoke an emotion in your readers, independent of the plot. A romance set in WWII Germany will make your readers feel different than a romance set at a beachside resort in North Carolina, even if both are basically love stories.

So, if scene setting is that important, why do we so often skip over the description of the scenery when we are reading? If not handled correctly, scene setting can be boring, causing your readers to skip ahead to the “good stuff.” There are several things you can do to prevent this from happening in your story.

Avoid large chunks of scene description. We need a sense of where the action is taking place, but we don’t need five paragraphs describing every room in the house or every building in the small town that your character lives in. Give us what we need to place your character and to set the mood, then get back to the action.

To give the scenery more punch, use all of the senses, not just vision. Don’t just tell us what a room looks like, tell us about the musty scent that permeates the curtains. Let us feel the heat of the sun beating down on your protagonist’s head and the grittiness of the dust getting blown into his eyes. Give us a way to taste the metallic tang in the air near the ironworks facility. A scene described using several senses is more likely to make your reader feel like they are at the scene, rather than reading about it.

Integrate your scene description with action. This way, we get the picture without having to stop and read, “This is what it looks like.” For example, you could say, “The sun beat down from the sky, a blistering 92 degrees. Jenna got in her car and hurried to meet Tyler at the dock.” Or you could work that scene description into the action, such as, “Jenna got in her car, squinting and fumbling for her sunglasses. She punched the AC up to high and hurried to meet Tyler at the dock.” In both instances, we learn that it’s hot and sunny, but in the second example, we might not even realize we were just given a scene description because it is a part of the action.

Use your scene descriptions to tell us something about your character. Making your scene setting do double duty in this way not only makes it more interesting, it gives you another chance to create a vivid, interesting character. When describing the scene, don’t just think about what’s there, think about what your character would notice and what that tells us about her. For example, you could say, “The windows were hung with heavy brocade curtains that were pulled tightly shut and there was a rich Oriental rug beneath my feet.” This certainly tells us where we are, but it isn’t very interesting and it isn’t pulling its weight. Consider this instead: “I wanted to throw open the heavy brocade curtains that hung on the windows and let in some light. It felt like a tomb in there. I stepped gingerly onto the Oriental rug that covered the floor between me and the windows. It didn’t feel right to walk on something that had probably cost more than I’d spent on my whole house.” Here we still see the curtains and the carpet, but we also get a sense of who our character is. We learn she probably doesn’t make a lot of money and isn’t comfortable around ostentatious displays of wealth. She also likes to let the light in, in a literal sense, which could be the author’s way of telling us this isn’t a “heavy” character or to hint at an open, honest personality. Either way, we get more than just a description of the room.

Setting the scene for your readers is an important part of writing an engaging story. Follow these hints and you’ll be on your way to creating scenery that gives us a good sense of place, sets the right mood, and illuminates your characters.

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