Workshop: Scene Setting, Part 2

Vision 67

Workshop: Scene Setting, Part 2


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2012, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Part 1: Mood


Your characters move through places often imaginary and on occasion real. The author often sees these places in his or her mind, but sometimes fails to bring the full connection to the reader. This connection must come through the eyes of the character (or the narrator) whose emotional reaction to the scene paints what the reader expects.


Sounds normal enough, right? However, authors sometimes miss the emotional overlay


Settings are places, filled with things. However, writing about settings is not about merely describing those things as individual pieces. Writing scenes is about senses and how your character perceives their surroundings. Reaction to a scene is part of the setting. For instance, look at these three versions of the same scene:


Everyone rushed along the sidewalk, jostling one another in a rush to get to the train station; people loud and faces glaring.


Everyone rushed along the sidewalk, jostling one another in a rush to get to the train station; people loud, faces glaring . . . a typical morning in the city.


Everyone rushed along the sidewalk, jostling one another in a rush to get to the train station; people loud, faces glaring as we fled from the encroaching invasion.


In the first one, almost anything could be happening. Your reaction to the next two lines, with almost the same words, will be different given the POV's reaction. We only know how to view the scene based on what the POV tells us:


I saw a plant with purple and green colors.


I saw a plant with rich purple and green colors.


I saw a plant with splotchy purple and green colors.


I saw a plant with moldy purple and green colors.


The first job of the author is to be certain you describe the setting in terms which best suits the POV character's reaction to what he sees and experiences. One of the most important components of setting is mood. In fact, mood will dictate what the narrator (POV character or not) sees. Someone who is angry or depressed is going to focus on the mud from the receding flood while someone hopeful will see the tuffs of grass and occasional flower.


Exercise 1:


Write a description of a set of two simple paragraphs based in the same location, but slant each one to a different mood.




Michael walked with his arm around Andrea's waist, leading her slowly towards the cabin no more than a quarter mile away. The breeze blew through the pines, sending a scattering of needles to the ground, startling a chipmunk into a frenzied leap which won a startled gasp of surprise from her.


Michael moved relentlessly forward, his arm tight around Andrea's waist, guiding her towards the cabin, still at least a quarter mile away. A sudden breeze sent pine needles dropping to the ground, startling a chipmunk into a frantic leap and winning a startled gasp of fear from her.



Part 2: The Five Aspects of Setting


We perceive the world in a jumble of senses. Usually color provides the first key to what an object is. A spot of yellow in the midst of a forest might indicate a flower, for instance, and we mentally file it as such until the flower spreads wings and flies away. Usually color and shape come together: black, rectangular box, billowing white clouds, etc.





In this set we'll deal with first glances. Those are the ones which fix the object in the reader's mind. Color is often the first thing we sense in what we see. If something is colorful and out of place, we'll focus on it automatically:


The jade green of the roof drew his attention before he saw the rest of the ornate white building setting amidst the snow.


Simple colors are often the first we consider (green instead of jade green), but for the sake of writing, it's best to give a bit more detail in the first glance since the reader will not want to constantly refine the original vision when it isn't necessary.


If you have trouble visualizing colors, try this site:


These are web-based colors, but they can help you expand your color references.





Shapes are simple to deal with, at least in the first glance: square, round, spiked, circular, boxy, rectangular, oblong, etc.


A huge, yellow rectangular building sat on the desert below us as the helicopter circled in to land.


In this case, I've put the color and the shape together since we often note them at the same time.


What about adding mood?


An ungainly yellow building, long and narrow, appeared on the desert below us as the helicopter circled cautiously in to land.


The first version gives the basics and sounds routine. The second implies something isn't quite right with the location. Yes, this is all very simple material, but often people forget to add these touches in when they are in the midst of creativity. Even in edits, they're still seeing the scene in their mind's eye and know the 'feel' but forget that the reader doesn't have those clues.


Patterns are also part of shape, like the irregular line of trees on the horizon or the carefully tended line of a white picket fence.





Sound often comes as an afterthought unless it is the true focus of the scene:


We could hear the scratching of some small creature in the wall behind the stove.


If it is not the focus -- if instead, you've concentrated on color and shape -- you might not think to add in a sound as well. However, a touch of sound can add a bit more feel to the scene:


We could hear the whispery scratching of some small creature in the yellowed wall behind the stove.


We could hear the annoying scratching of some small creature in the yellowed wall behind the stove.


Those indicate the mood of the scene with the addition of only one more word. Grouping as much of the sensory material together as possible will give an immediate impression in a few words.




No matter what the situation, there will be a scent in the air. However, it's only when the scent is strong or out of the ordinary that people take note. This is one of the least used senses when it comes to writing a scene, and you should consider when the addition might add just the touch of 'mood' that you want.


As I stood on the balcony overlooking the lake, the scent of spring lilacs filled the air.


Or how about twisting that one a bit?


As I stood on the balcony, looking over the lake lost in the haze of snow, the unexpected scent of spring lilacs filled the air.


The second gives the hint of something unusual happening, which might be the sort of clue you want for a scene. If you are having trouble finding a way to indicate something odd going on, try scent rather than one of the other senses. Because scent isn't as prevalent in most stories, the use can truly stand out. Scent can be subtle like the hint of perfume or strong like the smell of a burnt out house once the fire is put out. It can set the mood with words like fragrant, cloying or stink.




Texture is plainly a 'close at hand' sensory description. Even if it is not a description of feel, the character must be close enough to see the texture he's describing. Texture can also include such things as heat and cold. Much like scent, we don't often take notice of the feel of things around us until something extraordinary takes our attention.


Beneath his fingers the wood felt worn and smooth by the window, but he could see lines of peeling paint on the rough surface of the wall.


Exercise 2:


Grab a paragraph or two from your current work in progress and see how many of the five pieces you can fit into it to make the scene better. Don't over-crowd the work, though. Find the logical places to insert a touch of description which can help the reader better interact with the story.


He couldn't image what brought twenty of the Palace Guard out here and they didn't look too happy about the ride, either. Captain Geb led the group. Not a favorite of his, the pretentious poser. Not even any noble blood from all he'd heard. Geb signaled the others and they slowed to a stop while he dismounted and came forward, smiling brightly.


He couldn't image what brought twenty of the black and gold clad Palace Guard out along this dusty, serpentine path. None looked happy about the ride, and Tarik could hear the sound of panting horses pushed too hard in the bright desert sun. Captain Geb led the group. Not a favorite of his, the pretentious poser, whose perfectly arrayed black hair gleamed with oil where it wasn't covered in dust. As he neared, Geb caught the cloying scent of rosewater, as though the man bathed in it. Not even any noble blood from all he'd heard. Geb waited while Geb neared, smiling brightly.


Part 3: The Two Views


The two interlocking parts of a scene view is the far (wide screen) and near (close up) views. The scene might switch these two around in order, where a character notes the closer world before the farther things.



Wide Screen


In the far view things are indistinct, the colors are muted and the sounds soft. Textures and scents are lost. The mood might be threatening (as in the sight of distant storm clouds or a fire raging on a mountain) or ambivalent, lacking in any emotional overtones (blue sky, distant mountains).


Far across the grasslands she could see the misty shape of mountains clothed in clouds that promised rain.


A space ship coming into a system is going to see the predominant colors of a world before they see the shape of the landmasses. A distant island on the ocean may not look like anything more than a volcanic cone rising above the sea until the ship is close enough to see the luxurious plant life and the signs of villages.


Distant views are a good way to add apprehension, letting characters and readers worry about what exactly they see. Is the distant smoke a sign of the village burning, only to find it's actually a farmer clearing his field before planting?



Close up


Any time matters are closer at hand, the sensory input will, naturally, be stronger. Every piece of sensory input can be used when something is close and intense, but again, don't overload the scene with something that doesn't add to the mood. A couple intense senses is better than all five weak ones.


Exercise 3


Write a view of something from a distance and then close up, showing how the detail changes as the character draws nearer.


Lori spotted the dark roof and redbrick chimney of a farmhouse over the next rise and beyond a line of tall old pines, probably planted more than a hundred years before as a windbreak against the relentless winter weather.


The battered grey door, denuded of any paint, stood open and partly off the hinges and Lori didn't see a single unbroken window. The roof, which had looked whole at a distance, hung with gaping holes and even as she watched, bats rose from one heading off into the dusky red sunset.


And a final note


As I said at the start, authors often don't see what is missing in a scene. They understand the setting on a level which goes beyond the need for words. Sometimes reading through the book and trying to add these details won't work because you are still seeing the scene in your mind.


I've discovered one trick to help locate the missing descriptions. Start at the end of the manuscript and begin reading from the first full paragraph on that page and look for places to add one or more sense and mood descriptions per page. Why does this work? You are no longer reading the full scene from the start and already 'seeing' it in your mind. This works especially well if you have put the manuscript aside for a while.