So, last week we talked a bit about my preferred method of scene-setting, which is to give the reader the broad, impressionistic strokes of the scene, which they can largely flesh out in their own mind. I’ll go into detail about certain things, but only if they’re germane to the plot, or if they’re going to be used during the scene.
Okay. Nuff said.
So, how do we take a scene that is described in “broad strokes” and make it feel real to the reader?
How do we take an impressionistic Monet, and turn it into a Rembrandt?
Well, for that, we need to remember what it’s like when we walk into a room.
Do you only notice what you see with your eyes? I bet not. If you’re anything like me, there’s a slew of other things that you notice right along with the visuals–and often, those additional senses make a stronger impact on me than my eyesight.
Let’s talk about the five senses when you walk into a room…
Sight: This is the big one. This seems to be everyone’s go-to when they’re writing a scene, and justifiably so, since human beings are very reliant on their eyesight. With our sense of sight we can determine things like how big the room is, whether it’s tidy or unkempt, whether it’s bright or dark. If there’s enough light in a room to see things by, then the visuals will likely be the very first thing we register when we step into an unfamiliar room.
Smell: To me, this is what I notice right alongside or immediately after my first, broad, visual impression of an unfamiliar room. I can’t overstate the importance of scent. It is one of the most overlooked senses when it comes to scene setting, and yet, think of how scent affects you! Psychologically speaking, scent has very close ties with mood and memory. Now, from a writing standpoint, I’m not ALWAYS going to note the smell of a place when setting a scene. Why not? Well, because sometimes there’s just not a noticeable smell. But it is on
e of those things that lends a real power factor to any description.
Hearing: This can be a powerful mood-setting tool. Think of how much artificial sound goes into the production of movies! That’s because Hollywood understands the power of sound to affect a person’s perception of a scene. Is it quiet? Is it loud? Why is it loud? Are people talking? Or is it just a hushed murmur heard through walls? Is someone playing music? Something soft, or do you hear the subwoofers down the street? Or perhaps it’s so still in the room, you could hear a bug crawling on the floor. Hell, maybe you DO hear a bug crawling on the floor.
Touch: For me, this one is super straight-forward to use. I think the sense of touch can be really useful in terms of general narration, but under the umbrella of scene setting it generally falls into the basics of hot/cold, and wet/dry. And in those two sets of sensation, only when it reaches a quantifiable extreme. In other words, I might mention that it feels humid during a particular scene, but I won’t really go into further detail unless I’m picturing it really-fucking-humid. In which case I might say something like, “the air was thick enough to drown him. It felt like a hot, wet towel being pressed over his mouth.” Which is pretty
much every summer in North Carolina, FYI.
Taste: This is an interesting one. Obviously, our characters are not always eating something when they enter a scene. However, think about how air feels like on your tongue in different environments. Mentioning taste is a very strong way to complement a smell or touch description, such as the taste of rain in the air, or the acrid taste of burning flesh in the air. I would simply suggest that you use it very sparingly.
So, that’s how you can use the five physical senses to help you set a scene.
Have you ever walked into a place and just got a gut feeling about it?
A sixth sense, you might say?
Well, that’d be the MOOD, and we’ll talk about that next!