A monthly column written by an Authorlink contributing editor.

We welcome your questions, comments and input about writing and publishing

ASK THE EDITOR Setting the Scene

by Susan Malone

May 2003

The goal of any good writing is to offer the reader an experience. Not just words on a page; not a story told to; but a journey in which your reader is involved. Novels and works of narrative nonfiction use scenes to accomplish this. Scenes are composed of five essential elements, and for now let’s discuss the first one—setting the scene.

A lot of writers want to miss this step. It’s just window dressing, they say, while eagerly jumping into the meat of the thing. But without this initial point, the rest of the scene spends a chunk of time playing catch up because you never put the reader there in the first place.

I see an abundance of the extremes—either no scene setting is presented at all, or we get four pages of description before anything happens.

The best scenes begin IN the action. i.e., something has already occurred, the viewpoint character being already faced with some conflict about which the reader quickly learns, and we’re into the throes of it right off the bat. In other words, SOMETHING is happening when we begin.

But you still then must set the scene. To give the reader the best chance of “being” there, sensory input is a must. Sights, smells, sounds, textile touches, tastes even, if that affects your plot. We need bits of each. The trick is to evoke all of these from your character’s viewpoint (as I routinely say, everything revolves around viewpoint). Often I see wonderful scene setting, but it’s done from an omniscient viewpoint. We get descriptions from the eyes of a poet, when the viewpoint character is a coarse man who never finished eighth grade and in his next lifetime still wouldn’t relate the Ides of March to an ill spring wind. In other words, if your protagonist is a refined lady in a romance novel, who thrives on the heady/sweet aroma of Lilacs at dusk, then the she’d most likely be offended by the smell of napalm in the morning.

Of course, the converse can absolutely be true—if you’re using it on purpose. I have a character in a novel who is that course man, running a dairy and never traveling off the farm. But his palate is quite refined, and he knows the difference between the licorice taste of Tarragon and the piney twang of Sage in his eggs. It’s not only part of his character, but plays into the plot as well.

The point is to use all things deliberately while depositing your reader smack dab into the middle of the scene. And we’re not talking about mere description, but rather an evoking of the senses. You can get so much mileage from that as well, especially where the character’s moods are concerned. Use metaphor and imagery to evoke those moods. If the sky is dark and rumbling and the wind picks up and causes goose bumps on your character’s arm, then your readers know that something ominous looms from the horizon and the character knows it. But if the same wind swirls in and not until it knocks over the vase of flowers does she notice, we’ll know she’s somewhat oblivious to the world around her. You’ll still stay in her viewpoint, but we’ll know things about her—and get a sense of where she’s sitting—without the author having to come in and tell us.

If the doughy aroma of baking bread fills her nostrils, we, too, will get a sense of homeyness and that all is well. If however an acrid aroma of burning borsch fills the house before she notices, we’ll know something is not quite right (not to mention wonder why the heck she’d be cooking that in the first place).

This translates to every scene in the book. If you write a sex scene that’s hard and cold or mechanical, we’ll know the pairing is not exactly nurturing. If, however, we feel the sweet breath of a lover on our skin, then the scene is about something else entirely.

See how much mileage you can get from this? Rather than spending four pages setting up the relationship between two characters, the reader “gets” it in a paragraph, or better yet, a wonderful sentence or two. We’re not only put into the scene, but know where we are and what’s going on and how the folks relate within it. Ninety percent of your work has just been done for you, without beating your reader over the head with ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’

Conflict is the next step in scenes (which we’ll discuss in a later column), and if you set the thing up right, your reader is into the conflict before she knows who’s who even—which is half the point of a good scene.

It all goes back to show-don’t-tell, that pesky rule that tends to trip up most folks in the beginning. So use it. Create your scenes from the beginning. Use metaphor and imagery; evoke the character’s emotions. Focus on the senses so the reader can relate. Give us an idea of who’s who and what’s what and where we are and why we’re here. Then you can go on to write a bang-up scene that grips your reader from the get-go. Translation: makes that agent, editor, and ultimately book buyer want to keep turning the page.

About Susan Mary Malone

Author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding Men. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com www.maloneeditorial.com