Monday, July 25, 2011

Scene Setting

Have you ever read a book that took place somewhere (real or fictional) you’ve never been, but you can picture it like you’ve lived there? If the answer is yes, chances are the author did a great job depicting the setting and atmosphere (either that or you just have a great imagination :P).

So how do you write a scene that tricks your readers to believing they’re in an ancient royal palace or futuristic spaceship instead of reminding them they're staring at ink on a page in their familiar living room?

It’s not that hard. There isn’t really any deep secret or meticulous method. It’s mostly just including the right details in the right places. Here’s how:

Picture the place in your mind. Make note of everything, every color, every line, every object for your own personal reference. Then move on to sound. And smell. And touch. And, if necessary, taste. Try and imagine yourself taking a short walk through your setting, as if you’re a director arriving on set, preparing to make a film. You have complete control over the setting: if you want to tear down a wall and put in a fountain, go ahead and do it! Resources are free in your imagination.

When writing the scene, try to sneak in small details here and there instead of describing a room at once. Any more than two or three sentences of description can appear dull and loose your reader’s interest, especially in young adult novels. Unless the setting is breathtakingly beautiful or eye-opening to your main character, the description should be interspersed with dialogue and action. Have people sit in the chairs of soft blue velvet, or drink from the gold goblets encrusted with dragon’s scales. Try and include details in the setting that serve a duel purpose, maybe revealing something about a character (paint splatter on the walls for an artist) or a mood (every ghost story needs fog and mist, right?). 

(Sometimes color can be a great way to convey the mood)

Be consistent. If you have Sweet Mother Sally open the cabinet by the fridge to get a mug, don’t have her daughter open the cabinet over the stove to get the same object two scenes later. If the cat’s collar is pink, don’t have it suddenly change to blue (without a reason).

Any other advice? Do you have a favorite place like you to “visit” by opening the pages of a book? 


  1. Excellent post, Morgan! Good advice here. I remember doing a crit for a writer friend. She had this habit of describing ordinary things (e.g. The dining room had an oval table and six chairs around it *this was supposed to be the home of a god disguised as a human) which really slowed down the story. I told her to only add what would be essential to the scene--like your example: Gold goblets with dragon scales. This kind of unique detail adds flavor to the world-building.

  2. What a fantastic post! I love how you describe setting a scene and how you include all the senses - it's so good to be reminded of that. You did such a great job of explaining how to draw the reader into the scene. I love when you said to picture the place in your mind and your explanation of how to do that - brilliant! Thanks! And thanks for commenting on my post!

  3. Hogwarts. How freakin' cheesy is that? I know it better than my own high school.

  4. I love this post! I'm not a writer and even I felt inspired to write something fancy :)

  5. I'm glad you liked the post :)

    Martha- I'd visit Hogwarts too! (Well... I'd put it right behind Middle Earth) We did spend seven years at hogwarts, and only four at high school :P

    Lydia- you should write something fancy :)