Setting the scene

My works of fiction cover both real world and imaginary, both of which contain at least a loose connection to science fiction or fantasy themes. As I’ve mentioned before in How I Write, I keep an A4 pad next to me to jot down ideas. These can be recalled later on which seems simple enough but it isn’t always the only way to add information into a story. Setting a scene can often seem either trivial or fraught with a minefield of indecision.

At times I have found describing a scene tricky, too much information and you leave little to the reader’s imagination, too few bits of description and the reader is left with a sense of blandness, which can prompt the reader to show no feeling toward the characters or storyline. There are some techniques that enable me to conjure up just the right amount of description of a scene setting.

7 Tips for Scene Setting.

1. Sketching.

You might not be an artist but we all have the ability to doodle. Don’t be worried if your doodle makes no sense or isn’t a masterpiece. Scribble and doodle away! The more you doodle the more your ideas will come across on the paper. If you have a scene in mind then start with that, draw an alleyway or room or park, add in some loose detail – railings, are there any signs to see? What about other people? They can be stick figures so long as you know where there are supposed to be. Is it light or dark? Add some shadow. You get the idea?

2. Single Words.

Write down the title of your scene. Under it write a list of words that describe that scene. Start with the basics and work your way to specifics. Once you start you should find it becomes easier to add those details further down the list. For example: Day. City. Man and woman. Argument. Empty park. Ducks. Single row boat on pond. Children in far distance. Bright sunshine. Green railings around the grassed areas. Red balloon stuck in a tree. Map on wall. Ice cream truck jingle from a nearby road.

3. Artwork/Photos.

You can draw ideas and inspiration from existing art work. Doesn’t matter what that is. You might find the lighting in a Monet to your taste. Photo’s are a constant source of inspiration, from dedicated professional prints to the quick amateur snapshot. If you have an idea for a scene try searching for it in a search engine, may take you a while to find something you like and even then it may only contain a few elements of what you had pictured in your mind, but along the way you may find other images that inspire you.

Build up a library of what you find inspiring or thought-provoking. If you want your setting to be set in a real place go out and take photos of that place. If you can’t get to the location find photo’s online, again build up a library with as many images as you need.

4. Video Games.

If you don’t play them you can find an endless supply of screen shots online. Playing video games based on your storyline lets you prowl around someone else’s imaginary vision. Even a small section of a scene can give you ideas, the way sunlight reflects on water, or how the camera pans across a scene. Memorable bits and pieces can aid you in crafting your own scene.

5. Reading/Watching.

Plagiarism is a shitty way to write, the method of a lazy mind. However this doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired buy what you read and see. You could be watching a movie when a split second of scene or camera angle can cause a piece of your scene setting puzzle to slip into place. I believe that those who write fiction tend to evaluate movies and books more than those who don’t. This may be due to the fact that we compare what we read/watch to what we ourselves create.

6. Personal experiences.

You can find a wealth of information from people who have been there. This can be achieved via friends or family and increasingly via online sources. Don’t forget works of fiction or fact that have already been published. Whatever it takes to find out the amount of detail you require, dig and delve similar in ways to an investigative reporter!

7. Visit.

Like taking photos, you may be able to visit these locations you need to describe. If not then find similar places within travel distance. Move around the location, breathe in the air, spend some time there and watch the light change throughout the day, are there any smells, sounds etc? Make notes, doodles, anything you feel is important to you.

Another tip is that many people are often quite open to providing you with information if you let them know you you’re writing a novel and would be grateful if they could spare some time. Naturally this depends on the nature of information your require!

For example I recently found I needed to know something about tractors and the only experience I had was watching them trundle past me on the road. I was lucky to find a JCB tractor showroom and salesman who was intrigued when I told him I was researching for a novel. I was shown around the cab of a gigantic tractor despite the fact that the salesman knew I wasn’t going to buy one! In this situation the salesman clearly found the event a break from his usual routine, something to discuss with his friends and family. I was also given the chance to drive a much older tractor by a farmer friend. It was a unique experience!

In regard to the actual information you provide your reader, think of finding a subtle balance between overload and minimalism. I like to include details that pander to the senses. These are important to the reader as it connects them to the scene, makes it more vivid and memorable than without.

Use your senses.

What is the smell?

Burnt hair? Wood shavings? The smell after a candle has been snuffed out? Snow? Even snow has a smell!

What can be touched?

Is the stone wall smooth or different to other walls in the story? What does that newspaper feel like? Clothes have different textures. When the character walks on the grass is it wet and slightly chilled or hot and dry?

What can be heard?

Distant sound of a siren? Laughter? Rain on a window? Fireworks in the sky but not visible. The crunch of a hard shoe on gravel. Something sharp on something smooth.

What can be seen?

Wide open spaces or confined and claustrophobic? Night time or clear day light? People, buildings, animals, plants. Blood? Mist? Smoke? Green grass? Bricks and rubble? Bright blue sea? Clouds? You get the idea.

What can be tasted?

This can be linked to smell. It can also include description on the type of strawberry milkshake a character is drinking for example. The air can also be tasted.

By bringing sensory description into play you provide the reader with the ability to easily remember a scene, especially when referring to the same setting later on. The reader is more likely to remember a setting when there is mention of certain sensory description. Just enough information to prompt the reader to mentally use their senses to build up an image in their own minds.

If you look at the image at the top of this post you can draw on any aspect of it to use as inspiration for setting a scene. I chose this picture at random from a Google search a few minutes before writing this post, so it is almost as unfamiliar to me as it is to you.


As an experiment take a good look at the image and write down a description that you would imagine it to be, think back to what I said about taking some elements of images/photos and altering them to fit what you need. Don’t write what you see, rather what you would see if you had the chance to adapt it to your imagination, as if you could reach inside it and mould it to your vision. Ask yourself questions, write them down if you don’t yet know the answer, because you will eventually know the answer in time. Below you will see what I wrote about that scene.

Soft sun light as it dips low in the sky, is it sunset or sunrise? Are the streets wide or narrow? Who would be walking or stood chatting in the street? I’d have more weeds growing through the cobbles. Maybe the town/settlement in decline and no one to tend to the weeds. The picket fence would be gone, I’d have steps leading down to a lower street, which in turn would lead to a dock with a couple of boats. I want a few signs hanging down from the buildings, not too many and certainly one clear enough to read the words. I’d have a larger portion of people in poorer clothing, and one or two people in obvious expensive dress. The house far right would be removed and the gate in the centre part of a longer railed fence with views through to the land beyond. Either woods or a mountain range in the distance that would indicate an isolated settlement or border town.

That’s as far as I got for my example scene setting, but you get the idea. You can change any image, wrap your own imagination around it and adapt what you need. You may find that the end result is nothing like the image you started with but it got your creative flow moving along didn’t it? I’ve really enjoyed writing this post, and whilst writing part of my mind has been busy building up a setting for a chapter in a novel I am working on!

One final note, a quirky one to some degree.

Some time ago I was talking to a friend about our “getting ready to sleep” process. Do we read a book or listen to music in bed? Do we lie awake thinking about endless problems we can’t solve at that specific moment yet we can’t make our brains shut the hell up! My reply was rather dull on the surface. I said: “I fall asleep every night with the same thought.” And that really is the truth, it’s been that way as long as I can remember. Each night, eyes closed, comfortable in bed, I run through a small meditative technique then settle down to explore my one thought which is: “What next…?”

As I drift from awake to asleep I conjure up a setting from whatever fictional work I happen to be working on, and I play the scene out in my mind, adding bits, taking bits away, watching characters move through that scene, how they interact with the setting or how they would interact if I added something to help/hinder them. I don’t get through a full list before I’m asleep but I have a knack of remembering what I was able to improve on when I wake or later when I am writing.

That said it is time for me to sleep, so…what’s next?

Speak to me!

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