Writing Life: Set the Scene
by Michelle Janene
She walked down the narrow alley squinting into the dim light. The stench of discarded, decaying Chinese food wafted from the dumpster. A rat scurried passed her toes and made her jump back a step. Cockroaches fled the sudden glaring light as the backdoor of the restaurant flew open and an employee tossed more waste in the trash.
Setting the scene and grounding the reader is vital to immersing them in the tales we weave. Recently I have noticed more negative Amazon reviews speaking to the lack of scene setting and how it disappointed or confused the reader. “I had no idea where the character was or what they were seeing.”
I have been listening to an audio book of an investigator traveling from location to location trying to solve a mystery. The detailed description every time the main character arrived in a new place captivated me.
How do we write riveting scenes?
There are many ways to do this, but using all the senses is crucial. What is the character hearing, feeling, seeing, smelling, and even tasting? If we can describe these things then it will make the reader feel like they are there.
How can we describe a place or event that we have never seen or witnessed?
As a fantasy writer, I often struggle with this. It’s world building. While I am creating a new and imagined realm, I also want it to feel familiar enough that the reader can relate to it. So the world has two green moons in a purple sky. My audience knows what a moon is and a sky. This is something which grounds them and connects them with the fanciful world I’ve created.
What about more realistic scenes?
In one of my current works in progress (WIP), I am using my hometown as the setting. I can easily recall or visit locations to get a real sense of them to use in my novel. I can help the reader feel like they’re there because I have been there and can describe it in detail.
In a recently completed WIP, I have my main characters running all over Europe. While I have traveled extensively, I have never been in Spain or in any part of Africa. I spent a lot of time researching. I watched many YouTube videos for the annual festival of the Running of the Bulls listening to the crowds and watching the men and bulls careen through the streets. I paused at specific points along the festival route to include the exact details in my story.
I also use Google Earth to “walk” the streets of locations I have never visited. I know which houses are on dead end streets, what businesses are next to one another. I can even explore the websites of those businesses to get a feel for what they sell and sometimes I’m able to get a view inside.
Another option, to help you ground yourself in the scene so you can write it better, is to interview people who have been there.
My mother grew up in Iowa. She has often told me of the sudden thunderstorms that popped up in the summer making everyone scurry out of the pool until it passed. As a Californian who has rarely ever experienced a summer storm, this is odd to me. But it can make for a great story detail if I ever use the Midwest as a setting.
Making powerful, engrossing scenes helps the reader feel like they are there in the story with the character. It is nearly as important as the characters themselves and deserves our time and effort. Take time to look at the world around you. Note the sounds and smells of your local coffee shop, or tourist attraction. What do you notice first when you enter a room? Take notes. Weave your experiences into your tales. Let your scenes come alive.
About the Author
Michelle Janene lives and works in Northern California. Most days she blissfully exists in the medieval creations of her mind. She is a devoted teacher, a dysfunctional housekeeper, and a dedicated writer. She released her first novella Mission: Mistaken Identity in 2015. God’s Rebel came out in 2016, followed by Rebel’s Son and Hidden Rebel in 2017. She has been published in “Guide Post Magazine” and several anthologies. She leads two critique groups and is the founder of Strong Tower Press—Indie solutions for indie authors.
You can read Michelle’s “The Writing Life” column on the 3rd Tuesday each month here at Mustard Seed Sentinel.