Writing Tips: Setting the Scene
When I’m introducing a new physical location to a story, I think about what I would look for, or notice, were I the one that was seeing that location for the first time. That can vary, depending on the location, but I know that I’m still going to probably use all six senses. There are the usual five, of course – what I can see, smell, hear, touch, and, rarely, taste. Then there’s the other one. How do I feel about it? Describing locations this way can help to paint a more complete picture of a space. Is it crowded, or warm? Is it bright, or gloomy? Is it loud, or eerily silent? Does it smell pleasant, or awful? Does it make me feel cozy, or nervous? Those are just a few examples. There are many possibilities.
The next step is to thing about what my character would notice. While there may be bits of me in my characters, my characters are definitely not me. Something that I might see right away could go unnoticed by one of them. The way a place makes me feel might be completely different than it does for them. I may have to apply this process to multiple characters for the same location as well, depending on whether or not the story POV shifts between them.
Once I’ve done that, I need to determine what I want the reader to notice. A location may play an important role in the development of the plot, after all. There may be specifics that I want to highlight for the reader, as well as details that I want to go unnoticed at the time. I also need to take pacing, structure, and length in account. My goal is usually to include as much descriptive detail as necessary, without overloading the reader with details.
I know that some readers like to get as much detail as they can, including specifics that may not even be relevant to the plot or story. Other readers like descriptions to be as brief as possible. I fall somewhere in the middle of that. If it’s important, then tell me everything. If it’s not, then keep it simple.
Then there’s style. My writing style does lean more toward descriptive than limited, but I still prefer to leave some things to the reader to determine. For example, in a space station, I’ll describe a compartment as cramped, but not give actual measurements. Then I’ll use the size of the compartment later as a reference, describing as space as being a certain number of compartments wide or tall. That saves me the work of having to make sure that all of the items I include in that compartment actually fit. But it also forces the reader to do some of the work. What would be cramped to someone used to living in a large, five bedroom house in the suburbs will likely be different for someone used to living in a downtown studio apartment in the big city.
Only give them what they need.
Here are a couple of examples:
1. Nix could already hear the noise as Abi took him past a partition wall and down a set of stairs made from metal grating. The size of the Nigma space always shocked him a little. He didn’t know what it had been before, but he guessed maybe a former equipment bay, or even a vehicle bay. The room was four compartments wide, at least that many long, and two compartments tall. It was tiny compared to a big open space like Market Sixteen, but it was still one of the largest, single, private spaces he had ever been inside of. It held several stacks of equipment crates, some of which had been opened, but it was all of the little homey touches that he really appreciated. Plastic sheeting and colorful, handmade blankets had been hung as partitions and spread on the floor as bedding. Different colored task lights were scattered around, washing areas in bright blues, reds, and yellows. There were a couple of entertainment and gaming systems set up, several half-full clothing racks, and even a makeshift kitchen in one corner, with a portable chiller and a couple of recon units.
2. Inside, the club was body heat warm, and the air was saturated with the sickly floral scent of high-end perfume and musky pheromones so thick that you could spread them on your morning toast. The DJ, Tony’s cousin, was laying down some tribal beats under a looping sample from Fortune Scarlet, the previous year’s top R&B songstress. Cam could feel the rhythm crawl under his skin and massage his heartbeat like a hand beating a conga drum. He smiled, knowing that he’d made the right call to come along.
In the first example, I started by describing the sound as noisy. That could mean that it was crowded, or that the acoustics encouraged echoes, or that something was making a lot of noise. As I mentioned earlier, I used the compartment as a unit of measurement. I also compared the size of the space to another location from earlier in the story. Although I left out any actual measurements, I did include a lot of vague references, along with some specific mentions. Plastic sheeting evokes a more specific type of mental image than colorful, handmade blankets does. The overall lighting scheme was left out, although, based on story context, the reader is likely to assume overhead lighting. But I added to colored task lighting. That may seem like a lot, but it’s really a very spare amount of detail. What color/s are the walls? What material are they? What about floor coverings? The stairs are made from metal grate. Is the floor as well? How many stairs are there? What color is the plastic sheeting? There are a thousand more details I could’ve mentioned, but I only included enough for the reader to get the feeling that the room was well described, even though they will have to fill in a lot of gaps with their own imagination.
In the second example, I was more descriptive of the characteristics I included, but I included fewer overall characteristics. From Cam’s point of view, the two most important items were the temperature (body heat warm) and the smell (sickly floral scent of high-end perfume and musky pheromones.) I also implied that the air was humid (so thick that you could spread them on your morning toast.) Then came the sounds (tribal beats under a looping sample from…the previous year’s top R&B songstress) and their volume (Cam could feel the rhythm crawl under his skin and massage his heartbeat like a hand beating a conga drum.) Also, unlike the first example, I used metaphors as my descriptors instead of describing an element’s specific qualities. But I described a lot fewer things, overall. There was so much detail that I left out. How big was the club? How big was the dance floor? How many people were in there? What was the lighting like? How tall were the ceilings? None of these details are there, nor were many others. That was all left for the reader to imagine. I definitely set a tone for the space, though, leaving the reader to feel like I had done my job.
There’s no one way to do this sort of thing. These are just a couple examples of how I like to do it. Next time you’re reading something you really like, pay attention to what the author describes, and how they describe it.