THE PLACE TO BE FOR ALL YOUR STORY WRITING NEEDS

SETTING SCENES

How many of you start your story from the idea of a place?

 

A hollowed tree, who lives inside?

A tower block at night with only one light on, who's still up this late?

 

Setting is so important and the key is to get a good balance - too much scenery will swamp the reader (nobody needs five pages about the wonderous bark of a tree, unless it's a book about tree bark). But don’t include enough scene-setting and you risk not immersing the reader.

 

So what do we do?

 

The main purpose of the description is to get a visual in the reader’s mind. How can we imagine ourselves on the adventure with them if we don’t know where they are and what’s around them?

 

The first trick is to avoid the dreaded info dump. Instead, try 'peppering' - sprinkle the description liberally and the mind will colour in the image for the reader.

 

She peered inside. The room was red.

She peered into the red room.

She peered inside, unnerved by the deep red walls.

 

Okay so the word 'peered' has now lost all meaning to me, but the feel of each sentence example was different.

 

This will bring us on to the finer points of show or/and tell later, but for now let's focus on-

 

Rule no 4: ALWAYS SAVE AND BACK UP YOUR WORK

 

…Or just how to set your scene.

For this we will use a wonderful little technique called ‘I am the Scene Puppeteer’ (or perhaps something a little less creepy)

 

Pick a scene from your story or invent a random one for the purpose of this exercise. I’ll continue with the red room example above.

 

So that you can always make your own Scene Puppeteer diagrams whenever you like, we’ve included these nifty blank templates for you to download:

Let’s look at our red room example. I’ve added all of the elements about the room I want to include, but now comes the tricky part. Go through each item or piece of description and decide whether it has any use to the story.

Example: Bloody knife on the floor – weird place for a knife and the blood suggests foul play. Having a bloody knife in a room that doesn’t have something to do with the plot would be unusual. Two reasons for this item would be:

 

Because the story is a murder mystery/thriller and the knife is the murder weapon. This makes the knife primary item.

Because the knife is not necessarily part of the plot, but it shows something very important about the character’s psyche or leads to a misunderstanding of some kind. This would make the knife a supporting item.

Another example:

 

Grandfather clock – suggests grandeur – does it have any hidden properties? Are the characters going to find something in it? Is it going to chime thirteen or stop for a story-enhancing reason?

 

The answer to all the above might be no, but the grandeur might be very important to foretell/foreshadow a character we’ve perhaps not met yet. This would be a supporting item and it’s fine to keep it in.

 

A bouquet of pansies, pink roses and baby’s breath wrapped in a muted pink organza ribbon, set in a glass vase on the wooden writing desk – are we likely to see the flowers again, perhaps dead to show the vestiges of passing time? Is the colour of the ribbon significant, does it perhaps match an ancient wedding dress? Do we see the wooden writing desk again, or perhaps get to know the character of the person who owns such an item?

 

If the answer to the all of the above is no, do you really need the description at all?

 

DISCLAIMER: You might need to describe the room using all of this detail to give an insight into the character, and that’s absolutely fine. Just be cautious about including information that clogs up the flow of the story.

 

“But I’ve got a long list of supporting items now - how do I know what to cut and what I can keep?”

How to know when something isn’t needed

We’ve said before that the purpose of description is so that the reader can visualise and immerse themselves in the scene. Okay, back to the red room.

The room had red walls, the kind that made you think of rusted blood, and thick velvet curtains. A table stood in the middle of the room, large and imposing in dark, thick oak. The green carpet was thick in places but trodden down between the door, the desk and the bookcases. A large grandfather clock issued an ominous ticking from one corner, and several imposing portraits glowered down from the walls. Even the bookcases, floor to ceiling, only held the old-style tomes bound in dark red, blue or green leather.

By the end of reading that, were you getting a bit eager to move on and see something happen?

First, lets take another look at what’s needed (this is like Scene Puppeteer Lite):

The room had red walls, the kind that made you think of rusted blood, and thick velvet curtains. A table stood in the middle of the room, large and imposing in dark, thick oak. The green carpet was thick in places but trodden down between the door, the desk and the bookcases. A large grandfather clock issued an ominous ticking from one corner, and several imposing portraits glowered down from the walls. Even the bookcases, floor to ceiling, only held the old-style tomes bound in dark red, blue or green leather.

Red walls

Thick velvet curtains

Table in the middle – large, imposing, dark thick oak

Green carpet, thick in places, trodden down in others

Large grandfather clock – issuing ominous ticking

Imposing portraits

Bookcases – tall, holding old leather-bound books

How much of that is necessary?

So, we ask ourselves the question – what are we trying to say about this room with these visuals? Is this just our way of saying ‘it’s a creepy study in a really old house’?

 - The red walls and thick velvet curtains suggest really old house, as does the carpet that’s only trodden down along routinely walked routes.

 - Table in the middle suggests the study of a character who likes to be seen/centre of attention (or they need to be in control and see who is coming at the earliest opportunity).

 - The large grandfather clock (aren’t they all generally large in relation to general house clocks?) suggests silence because we can hear the ticking, while the imposing portraits and stocked bookcases imply the owner might be from a well-off and/or established family.

Do we need these descriptions? Let’s assume no, and see what that looks like with just solid fact.

The room had red walls, the kind that made you think of rusted blood, and thick velvet curtains. A table stood in the middle of the room, large and imposing in dark, thick oak. The green carpet was thick in places but trodden down between the door, the desk and the bookcases. A large grandfather clock issued an ominous ticking from one corner, and several imposing portraits glowered down from the walls. Even the bookcases, floor to ceiling, only held the old-style tomes bound in dark red, blue or green leather.

We have the room, a table and a ticking clock.

Example: A table stood in the middle of the study, with a large grandfather clock making an ominous ticking noise.

 

Okay so we’ve taken out all of the description. It’s short, it’s snappy. We still have the ambience set by the ominous ticking.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t use the red walls and velvet curtains, the imposing portraits and big bookcases. Quite the contrary, and this is the big secret:

You’re not going to use them. Your character is.

Jane peered inside, unnerved by the deep red walls. Her feet made no sound on the green carpet as she walked the well-trodden route between the door and a bulky oak desk. The only sound in the study was the ominous ticking of a grandfather clock in the far corner.

Jane sees the red walls as she peers inside. Her feet are walking the carpet between the door and the desk. Her ears are hearing that the only sound is the ticking.

Even though there’s no dialogue, you can pack in the red walls, the well-trodden green carpet, the desk and the grandfather clock without having to tell the audience what the room is like. We see it through Jane’s eyes. If the bookcases and curtains are important, you can always add them in after.

Imagine Jane is snooping but fearful of getting caught:

Jane peered inside, unnerved by the deep red walls. Her feet made no sound on the green carpet as she walked the well-trodden route between the door and a bulky oak desk. The only sound in the study was the ominous ticking of a grandfather clock in the far corner.

She checked behind the thick, velvet curtains just in case there were any secrets hidden there. Disappointingly, all she found were dusty windows covered in grime. Wrinkling her nose, she turned her attention to the bookcases that reached all the way up to the ceiling.

‘It’ll take me forever to search these,’ she realised. 

We’ve managed to not only get in the curtains and the tall bookcases, but even added in dusty windows covered in grime. When you pepper the descriptions alongside the character’s action and show the scene from their eyes, the reader will see the same.

If you do use the Scene Puppeteering on your writing, please let me know if this works for you!

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