I was asked recently by an aspiring writer to help them figure out how to set the scene. It’s interesting how often I do things without thinking about them. I had to think about this guy’s question for a bit.
How exactly do I set scenes?
Well, there’s one guiding principle here, and that’s that I myself CAN’T STAND lengthy descriptions. I mean, if I see a long description shaping up in a book I’m reading, I just skip it. I move right on to the next portion where people are talking or doing something.
Descriptions are not exciting to me. And my #1 Rule Of Writing is “Write What You Would Want To Read!” I’ll have to post my entire set of writing rules, but that’s a conversation for another time. Back to the subject at hand…
First off, is it a small scene, like a single room? Or is it a big scene, like, say, Camp Ryder from The Remaining series?
Size does matter here, because it factors into my strategy.
First, I never want to spend more than a paragraph or two describing stuff. This isn’t because there’s anything horrendously wrong with having big long descriptions–I just don’t enjoy them, and I don’t think they add anything to the story.
So, when I describe a scene, I set out to deliver the broad strokes. I’m not trying to tell my reader every damn thing about the environs. What I am trying to do is build a framework for them to drape their own imagination on. So I just hit the big points–the things that I personally would notice when I walk into a room: Is it big or small? Is it roomy or cramped? Is it bright or dark? Cluttered or clean?
If something is germane to the plot, or if it is going to be utilized during the scene, then I will make sure to mention it early on. In other words, if the characters in the scene are going to sit on a couch, I’ll mention that the room has a couch, rather than making it seem as though it appeared out of thin air as they were sitting down.
What I’m not going to do is describe every piece of furniture and how it’s arranged. To me, that’s just boring and a waste of words.
So, what if the scene is really big? Something that can’t possibly be described in just a paragraph or two?
Using Camp Ryder from The Remaining, the writer that was asking me about scene setting wondered how he had such a clear image of Camp Ryder but couldn’t recall ever having read me describe it in detail.
And he is correct–I never did.
What I did was describe the bits and piece that were important to the particular scene, at the particular time. Over the course of entire books, eventually the entire description was there, so that when I said “Shantytown,” the reader knew what I was talking about, or if I mentioned “the office,” they had a clear mental picture already.
So, remember: whether you’re describing a big scene, or a small scene, give the broad strokes, and only go into detail about the stuff that you need to in order for that particular scene to work.
Now, the question is, how do you take broad, impressionistic strokes like that, and still make the scene feel REAL to the reader? Well, I’ll give you a hint: It’s not just about what you can see!
Next “On Writing” post, we’ll talk about scene setting and the five senses…and sometimes six?
Got any questions about scene-setting? Ask away! I’m a veritable font of free advice.