4 Tips: Setting the Scene

Some writers struggle with “setting the scene,” including me, so here is a post explaining how to do it better. Quick disclaimer: I am relatively uneducated and by no means an expert. I am not here to “teach” you anything. I am mostly here to teach myself. I am going to proceed without having read anything on the Internet, so the following tips are all my own (although I’m sure some iteration of them exists elsewhere).

Tip #1: The Five Senses

Begin with description that covers at least two of the five senses. Say your scene takes place at a supermarket: describe what you hear and smell. At a supermarket, you’ll probably hear a lot of people walking and talking. You can describe the blending of their voices and the squeaking of their sneakers. You walk into the bakery section and smell fresh bread and hot donuts.

Sight — What are we looking at?
Smell — What’s cookin’?
Taste — Closely-tied with smell. Heavy smoke can affect smell and taste at once, for example.
Sound — Did you hear that?
Touch — The cool, hefty weight of a gun in your hand…

Image result for simpsons gif gun

Tip #2: Perspective

As you describe what the scene looks, feels, and tastes like, don’t forget to mention how your character is responding. Maybe their mouth waters when they smell the bakery. Maybe they have anxiety and sweat when they are around so many people at the market. Their hand shakes, forcing them to grab a hold of a shelf to stay on their feet. Through action, you can describe the scene in more detail: the contents of the shelf, specific people who react to your character’s breakdown, and the inner workings of your character’s mind. This kind of detail is more immersive. Don’t forget to amp the emotion! How your character feels at any given moment is important — however, you don’t need to state it outright. Their actions often speak louder than words.

Bad Example: Jimmy walked through a crowded, noisy supermarket and felt so anxious that he had to grab a shelf to stay balanced.

Better Example: Jimmy walked through the supermarket, wringing his hands. His eyes darted around the droves of people meandering the aisles. Carts and sneakers squeaked along the floor. The bright lights overhead cast a haze over the chaos that compelled him to squint. Jimmy lost his senses of purpose and direction. He caught himself from swaying on a shelf stocked with bread. A plaid-wearing man bumped into him and apologized, leaving behind the scent of pine.

Tip #3: Mood

As you set the scene, you are also setting a certain mood. Make sure your description includes words that amplify the mood, such as “sunny,” or “gray,” or “chilling.” Also clue us in to the mood of your character(s) through action, like crying, stumbling, smiling, and so on. Start your scene with one mood (like sadness) and flip that mood around by the end (sadness to hope, contentment to anger, etc.).

Image result for simpsons gif

Tip #4: Outline

When you are starting a new scene, you are going to need a hook of some kind. The middle is the meat of the scene, when most of the Things happen. The end can be a cliffhanger or a transition directly into the next scene, but it should include a climax, or a point where the events in the middle culminate to a conclusion.

When I outline my books scene by scene, I only think of the central point of each scene. For instance, I’ll write, “Jimmy goes to the supermarket. He has a panic attack.” When I am actually writing the scene however, I’ve got to figure out a way to lead into it and end it with a bang. Obviously it has to flow within the story.

If I am stuck wondering how I should pull the reader in the scene, I’ll start with Tip #1, the five senses. The readers certainly aren’t going to feel immersed in the scene if you, the author, are not immersed in it as well. Make the world come alive. You can draw inspiration from movies, T.V., and other books. What draws you into a scene? Is it description of a landscape? Compelling dialogue? Explosions?

In short, if you are stuck: brainstorm. Outline the beginning, middle, and end of your scene. Craft a hook using the five senses. Describe the five senses from the point of view that best suits the scene. Spice it up with emotion. Make the mood clear with vivid imagery.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Feel free to elaborate more in the comments or debunk everything I’ve said. 🙂

Image result for simpsons gif

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