May 5, 2011

Setting the Scene

This post first appeared as the May "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


When writing a story, whether a work of fiction or a nonfiction narrative, it's a good idea to describe the setting of a scene so the reader can imagine where the action is taking place. Here's an attempt at doing that:

Nora walked into her old childhood room. It looked almost the same as when she left home twenty years earlier, from the pale pink carpet to the eggshell paint on the walls and ceiling. To the right of the doorway, alongside the wall, was a single bed covered in a comforter with a green and black abstract pattern. Opposite the foot of the bed stood a tall pine dresser with six drawers. The dresser top displayed a collection of glass animal figurines arranged on a piece of blue silk. To the left of the dresser was a window framed by pale green curtains, and to the left of that, an oak desk with three drawers on one side and a hutch on top with two shelves.

The writer has described Nora's old room in painstaking detail, so the reader should have a clear mental picture of what the character is seeing, right? Well, probably not, because chances are, the reader skimmed past this paragraph, fell asleep, or threw the book away.

A powerful description goes beyond cataloging every object visible in a scene. It shows the reader what's important in the setting while providing insight into a character. Learn to create effective descriptive passages, and you'll keep readers engaged and paying attention to every word.

When you write a scene, you may know exactly what the setting looks like. Perhaps it's a real place, or it's based on a location that's familiar to you, so you find it easy to record all the details of the surroundings. Before listing every attribute indiscriminately, consider what's relevant to the story. Does the reader need to know that the carpet is pink? If Nora resents that she automatically got the pink bedroom because she was a girl, then maybe so. Can the reader understand the scene without knowing the positions of the furniture? Unless a ninja is about to burst through the window and engage Nora in combat while hopping from dresser to bed, it's unlikely to matter how the reader pictures the layout of the room. Since the reader will assume a bed in a bedroom, do you even need to mention it?

In any setting, real or imagined, not all features are equally prominent or interesting. Mention the intriguing and unexpected elements. Focus on aspects that the character notices first, what he has feelings about, or details that contribute to the plot. By all means describe the flooring if the shiny hardwood makes your protagonist happy every time he walks into the room or if later in the story he's going to slip on the polished surface and break his neck. But when an unremarkable characteristic can remain unspecified, leave it to the reader's imagination.

The best way to write descriptions that readers won't skip over is to make the passages about character as much as setting. The example paragraph is dull because of the excessive bland details, but another shortcoming is that it reveals nothing of how Nora feels about what she's seeing. Does she have a pleasant nostalgia for her old room, or is she returning to a place she never wanted to visit again? Are there good or bad memories connected to any of the objects? Does she spot any surprising changes? How is Nora's perspective on this setting unique?

Rather than visualizing a setting objectively, look through the eyes of one of your characters. The way he responds to a location depends not just on its characteristics but also on his own. He'll react differently to a familiar place than to one he's never been in before. Maybe something previously happened to him at this spot. Maybe he has current needs or desires that the setting either helps him achieve or makes more difficult to attain. By describing the details that have significance to the character, you'll give the reader information about the character's personality and history at the same time as you illustrate the world you envision.

Let's go back to Nora's room:

Nora walked into her old childhood room. It was so unchanged that she began to laugh, though it depressed her that her mother hadn't altered the room in twenty years. Nora sat down on the bed, with the green and black comforter she'd chosen at thirteen because she believed the abstract pattern signaled her maturity. She'd been glad at that age to get rid of her pink flowered bedspread, but unfortunately the matching carpet had been too expensive to replace. Nora moved to the dresser and inspected the collection of glass figurines. She'd never cared about them enough to justify packing them for her move cross-country, and she was surprised by how much it delighted her to find the delicate little animals still here.

Find a description in your own work to rewrite, and ensure readers won't ever think about setting your book down!

1 comment:

Dave said...

Nice job - though didn't leave much to the "reader's imagination."

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