The dreaded phrase of many writers will and always will be, set the scene. I’m not sure where this fear comes from, but it’s a feral beast, one that haunts as they peer into the black and white abyss of a manuscript. The abyss only exists for the characters if they’re swimming in pages with no direction. Setting the scene gives your characters direction of what’s around them and in turn gives readers a vision of the world they inhabit.
The key is to enhance the world for your readers not distract them.
Fantasy writers, like myself, generally fall into the category of over setting – we like our colors, tastes, and minute details that half the time no one gives a shit about. I’ve been there, done it, lived it, and gotten flak for it as well as praise. My newest novel is faster paced and relentless at times, I didn’t want to get bogged down with setting the scene. Fast pace, short descriptions, and more stabby-stab sounded like a fantastic idea—except you lose direction. So you make a compromise with yourself, stay within an invisible line of enough details to picture it in your mind, but not implode your head space with lists of dimensions and where every piece of furniture is in the room and its color and its shape compared to your main character’s childhood home.
Direction, make sure your readers can follow where your characters exist currently and where they are headed. Literal directions, for the most part, can be thrown out the window, not the window on my left side of where I’m typing this blog.
- “How courteous,” I said as I tossed the brush to my left on what passed as a desk.
- “How courteous,” I said as I tossed the brush on what passed as a desk.
In this case, does the direction of where the desk is located to the main character matter to the story? The same conclusion happens, Rith is done using the brush so he discards it. It clutter frees your sentences and still conveys the same meaning.
Cutting directional words makes the most sense in your prose. I am a firm believer in directional words can be used in dialogue, sparingly, but are viewed as all right in my eyes. Most people give directions in their speech when going places, so don’t limit your characters verbiage to discard direction phrases. If my characters want to go to the near north, damn it, they will say it and mean it!
Little details, using the five senses, can enhance the imagination more than a string of scrutinized findings that only you might be able to picture. For instance:
—My room, a dark space of wood and subtle light like a ship’s hold, smelled of clean fish and coriander.
The above description cements a few things, smell, sight, and possibly taste. I used three (two depending if the sight of the word fish makes you hungry) out of the five senses in one not-to-long sentence. This one sentence gives a vision of the room without going into the dimensions, where the furniture resides or the color. I didn’t start off the chapter with this description, but it comes soon after to set the scene for the actions of my character. Later on, I add some sound:
—Light footsteps sent the squeaky floor boards into groan…
You now have four of the five senses, with a mere two sentences, not too shabby. Now the key is, not every place you visit or thing you see in your world needs to have a multitude of senses. Some senses can be implied:
—Sparrow and I followed Daz through the convocation of citizens who billowed with slurs of bargain and rants of indecisiveness.
The above sentence sounds like a crowded area, I don’t need the taste or the colors of what’s around to distract my readers. Right now, the focus is on the noise. Can I enhance the scene with some more detail? Yes, sprinkle it in and I’ve got a nice vision of the scene without taking away from what my characters are there to achieve. You’ll have to read the story to find out why they’re at the market—suspense!
Fantasy authors have a hard time because they have to build something entirely new, but even still readers are able to create their own vision of your world. And I’m guessing their vision is off skew from your own, it’s one of the many reasons why I love the medium, we all experience the same story with various flavors are mind finds fitting to the mood—make sure you can quench a reader’s thirst.
Non-fantasy writers have a have a hard job ahead of them as well. You have to make the mundane everyday occurrences seem intriguing. I wouldn’t know how to tackle such a style, I dread setting scenes as it is. Unless it’s some foreign structure or creature, it’s dull for me. Character descriptions…seldom feel rewarding even when characters are the essence of our stories, making unique ones, I still find it troubling to nail down those descriptors at times. But once you nail one down and they flow beautifully, rejoice for it is a difficult task. Ok, focus back to the setting.
Setting the scene is a give and take kind of relationship.
Please yourself with crafted prose for your readers to chew on, the pleasing kind of stuffing face, where it’s only the fluffy mash potatoes on the spoon, nothing else. Make sure it feels good going down the throat too, you need your readers be pleased and ready to move onto the next mouthful.
The spoon is your foundation of the scene. It’s imperative to make it glisten with enough details to turn the reader’s head.
The Potatoes are the scrumptious acts your characters do in the world around them. You’re here to have your readers enjoy each bite. The only way to accomplish such a task is a sturdy and consistent spoon. Make the spoon shine, just don’t have your readers staring at it when they should be eating. Lack of sustenance is bad, it kills people, don’t kill people.
Until next time, write on.