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Writing Tips: How to Set the Scene

Show don’t Tell

One thing you can do to improve the setting of a scene is practice showing, not telling. Pick a scene that you wrote and focus on one singular aspect in the scene. Maybe it’s the people. Write about their facial expressions, what kind of clothes they’re wearing, any nervous ticks or anything specific about them. Or maybe it’s the background. The skyline at sunset or the trees in a forest.

While Writing, it’s easy to just say something simple about the background and then move on from that in order to get back to the story. An example of this is saying something like; “there were a lot of trees', but don’t stop there. Really describe them, with more detail than you think you need. The leaves, the branches, the trunk, even the roots. When it’s finished, and you have as much as you can say about that aspect of the scene, try moving onto the next aspect of the scene. Move from the trees to the sky, and then over to the people. When all of the aspects of the scene are written down, combine them. Pretty soon, the scene that you’ve envisioned will also be able to be ‘seen’ by your audience. You don’t have to use everything that you’ve written about the scene, and maybe it’s better if it’s left to the audience’s imagination, however, now you have it written down, you’ll be able to better visualize what the setting looks like for you, and how that can affect the plot and the characters.

This also works really well for character relationships and showing how characters interact with one another. Don’t just say “they dislike each other”, let the audience figure that out for themselves. Show the audience what you want them to see without directly stating it. Play around with the information that you give out, and how you reveal that information.

Sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show, but sometimes it’s more fun to let the audience decide for themselves. It can also be really interesting to play around with what information to reveal at what time. It’s okay to make things ambiguous- it’s interesting for the audience as well, and can add an element of mystery and surprise to the overall plot.

Setting with Sims-

One thing that I tend to do while writing, that may seem a little odd, is to use Sims, or any other character/world builder in order to better visualize a setting or character. If I have a specific building, house, or room that I’m trying to describe, but don’t know how it will fit together, and it seems to be all jumbled when I write it out, I go over to Sims. The base game for Sims 4 has recently been made free for the public, so it’s a very inexpensive way to give your setting or character more realistic attributes.

I’ve played Sims since I was little, but early in high school I started using it as a layout for my characters and setting for different stories that I’m writing. It was a way for me to actually visualize what I was trying to convey in my writing. This allowed me to write out the setting in a way that allowed the audience to better understand what I was trying make them 'see' through my writing. Try using Sims or another character/world creator to make your setting come together more cohesively if you’re struggling with visualization.

Detailed Descriptions

You can always add more detail to the setting. Maybe it won’t be used, but it might help you figure out what you want the space to look like. I was writing a scene about a cluttered office with scattered papers, a lot of books, a desk, and an office chair. These are some of the questions from a peer writing exercise that helped make the scene a little more realistic, and allowed me to go more in depth with a space that I would frequently use within the frame of the longer story-

  • What types of books are there?

  • What personal items are on the desk?

  • One personal item on the desk that stands out?

  • Is it so cluttered to the point that there’s clutter on the floor?

  • Is there room to walk around?

  • Why is it disorganized?

  • What caused this person to be so cluttered?

  • Does the character like it the way it is? Or want change?

  • What type of chair is at the desk? What is the desk made of?

  • Are there any windows? What does the view look like out the window?

  • Are there any notable smells in the room?

  • What color is the room? Color Scheme? Colors that stand out? What colors/smells are related to the books?

  • Is it on the ground/top floor? Do you hear other people through walls, ceiling, floor? Is it noisy or quiet? Where is the office, exactly? What part of the house or building is it in?

  • Are there any electronic devices in the room?

  • How old are the papers? What’s on them? Why?

  • Does the room ever get too hot or too cold? Can the character easily change the temperature of the room?

  • Is the room itself going to be used as a part of the conflict for the character?

A prompt that may be useful to you, is to use the five senses to direct your background scenery. What do your characters see? What do they hear? What do they smell? What does the character taste? What do they touch? What does it feel like?

It’s okay to write out information that you don’t want or need in your story. Having more details is a lot better than not having enough information for your audience to really understand the scene that you’re trying to describe.

-Caitlin Barnard

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