The Writer's Bag of Tricks
Anatomy of a Scene
When we discussed scene beginnings a few weeks ago, we said that each scene should have a purpose and an intention, and we mentioned setting the scene as part of the process of scene beginnings. This week we focus in more depth on scene setting.
Scene setting is about giving the reader visual cues of your character’s environment, and/or placing your character at a point in time.
Think of the theater. Scene setting is like setting the stage for a play. Staging for theater is the process of selecting, designing, or modifying the performance space for the actors. You are sitting in the audience. The curtain opens. You see a kitchen table and a knife block filled with knives. An actor is chopping onions and crying. The faucet is dripping with a sound like a ticking clock. Another actor comes in and the scene ends with one of them dead on the stage with a knife sticking out of their chest. The stage designer knows that the props must be visible to the audience before the action takes place, otherwise the audience could miss the clue, and miss the anticipation that the clue provides. The audience must be able to see the knife at the beginning of the scene because the prop will be used in the action, and is important to the state direction.
You are writing a scene where your character is investigating a murder. Your readers (your audience) need to be able to see all the props that will be used in the scene by your characters, as well as all the clues and necessary hints required of the plot.
Your character enters the room and sees a chair in the corner. It’s overturned.
The scent of lilacs wafts through the open window and a sunlight beam reveals a lone pearl on the carpet.
The clock on the mantel chimes three times.
There’s a letter opener on the floor. Mail is strewn across the floor in a line from the desk to the dead body.
From this information your readers can guess that it is 3 PM on a spring day, and that perhaps some information in the mail triggered the murder. You don’t have to tell them this information because you have shown it in your scene setting. Your readers can see the scene in their mind’s eye.
You use scene setting to provide clues to your reader of what the scene look like, smells like, tastes like. You use scene setting to establish a point in time. You use scene setting to provide your character a place to interact with their surroundings, and other characters. You use scene setting to establish mood.
Scene setting is your establishing shot of your movie that your reader is watching unfold as they read. Remember that the visuals are important. Show them your character sniffing the air and wrinkling their nose. Don’t tell them your character doesn’t like the stench of lilac.
Do be careful not to play mysterious and be vague with your reader. If you just say the murder weapon was on the floor, but you don’t show your reader what kind of murder weapon it was, you run the risk of confusing your reader later. Never confuse your reader. Remember if your reader can’t see where your character is or what important thing your character is seeing, your reader won’t be able to internalize your story.
When you consider scene setting always think of your reader. In the scene you are about to write, do they need a visual of the graphic location? Do they need to know the time? Are there cultural references that are important to the story? Do you need to place important objects in the scene? Should there be a salt shaker on the nightstand next to the bed? What about objects that establish the mood like lighting and color? What things are necessary to provide your reader a good visual and provide important information relating to the plot or characters? Those are things you should consider when you begin to set your scene.
Do also be careful not to provide an abundance of useless detail. If your character walks into a room and you describe the intricate wallpaper, and the wallpaper has no relevance to anything related to the plot, don’t describe the wallpaper. You will bog your reader down or worse. You will bore them. Sure. It’s pretty wallpaper, but unless your character has a penchant for paper don’t do it.
Next week: More scene goodies