Setting the Scene
Welcome back, my lovelies, to the next installment of SIA Tutorials on novel-writing. Last time, we covered your opening scenes and lines. This time we’ll take a look at one of the most important parts of your story construction, other than your plot & characters.
Scene setting in this instance is referring to the art of constructing the physical environment around your characters and how it is relevant to the plot mechanics of the scene itself. I’ve mentioned this before in the specific context of writing fight scenes but the same principle applies for scenes where your characters aren’t getting their knuckles bloody.
SENSE YOUR SURROUNDINGS
You may have read writing tips that say “be sure to describe the room, make sure your readers know what your characters see and hear in the room.” More clever articles will tell you to make sure you describe the smells in a room, or have your character taste or touch something. While good advice, we can’t always have James Bond licking the couch outside M’s office just so we know that it tastes like.
What you can do instead is have the sensory perception be linked back to an experience that’s unique to that character. The scent of freshly baked bread can signal many different things, depending on who is smelling it.
Mary thought back to the warm rolls her grandfather used to make on Sunday mornings. Even though this bread didn’t come with a side of jam, she was almost sure she could smell it. When she looked down at her basket, she was disappointed to see just the loaf. Mary immediately started to search for a raspberry puree.
Angela couldn’t stand the way the cloying smell seemed to cling to her nostrils. Despite her best friend’s protestations that this place was the best bakery in town, all she could think about was how much sweeter and floral her vape pen was. Whenever she took a hit, Angela would wonder why anyone would ever settle for the rolled-newspaper flavour of baked goods.
Technically we have more than just 5 senses. Utilizing them effectively can help you create better environments for your characters to move around in. Here are a few of the less-popular senses:
i) Pressure - Our bodies can sense the weight of the atmosphere on our bodies. It can be relevant if your character journeys to a place where there’s a shift in said atmosphere such as a submarine, an airplane, or an elevator in a tall building. Sudden or rapid changes in pressure can also cause some people to faint or experience headaches. If your character is sensitive to this type of things, use the environment to your advantage and make pressure something your character has to consider.
ii) Thermoception - Ability to sense heat or cold. Temperature is something not many authors address but it can be a very useful tool for adding depth to a particular location. Transitions between outside and inside temperatures (ie. the difference between the unrelenting sun vs. the cool shade) can also affect your character’s moods and responses as well. This sense of thermoception can also be applied internally (such as a character being aware of that they have a fever, sunstroke, chills or hypothermia.) The contrast between the acknowledged temperature of a setting and your character’s perception of their own temperature does open up some story possibilities, for instance this can be an early warning sign that your character has been poisoned.
iii) Equilibrioception - Sense of balance. This usually doesn’t register for most people, but adding this sense to a setting does wonders toward putting your readers in the situation with your characters. Every one of us has fallen off a couch or bed at some point. And since we’re not all cats, we’ve all had that split-second feeling of dread where we know gravity is pulling us in a direction we don’t want to go. This can be used to great effect not only to illustrate injury (ie. dizziness from head trauma) but also for when your character to catches a loose floorboard in the seaside flower shop which momentarily throws them off balance and allows them to bump into their future-sweetheart in a meet-cute. Anything set in places like the deck of a ship or where there are active seismic events can benefit from addressing equilibrioception.
CHARACTER COLOURS CONCEPTION
The POV of your narrator or lead character should colour the perception of any particular setting. A three-storey library filled with wall-to-wall books can only physically look one way, but instead of describing how many levels and shelves there are, why not use the setting as a portal to provide some insight into your characters instead? For example, Hermione Granger walking into that library may have feelings like delight, curiosity and excitement. The things she would look at in that space would be reflective of her character. The way she views and occupies that space should tell us something vital about who she is. Not convinced? Imagine Ron Weasley walking into that same library by himself. How would he perceive the room and its qualities?
If you’re going to be revisiting the same location multiple times, why not reveal a different characteristic or another interpretation of a characteristic from the POV of another character?
Take a look at the clip below from The Abyss. Since the entire story is set underwater, *spoilers* aliens animate part of the setting (seawater) in order to communicate with our characters. Note that the tentacle is NOT a character in an of itself, just a part of their existing setting.
Take a look at the way each of the characters reacts to this literal change in scenery. It tells us something about Lindsey, Bud, Cat & One Night in the way they react to the unfamiliar.
Lindsay starts off surprised, wakes Bud for support, then grows curious and more daring the longer the water tentacle stays, to the point where she actually tastes it. She also laughs and smiles at the tentacle, which it mimics back to her, to her further amusement. What does this say about her?
Bud stares at the tentacle, then immediately rouses the other man in the room, the larger Cat, for backup. He also pulls Lindsey back when she appears frightened, indicating protectiveness. He also laughs when the tentacle imitates his face, but again warns Lindsey not to put her finger in it. What does this say about him?
One Night seems to shrink back into her position on sight of it, but scrambles upright and moves closer to Cat. She doesn’t say much, only identifying Bud’s face when the tentacle emulates him and asking if it’s alive. She noticeably does not appear amused by the mimicry. What does this say about her?
Cat has the simplest reaction, a straight-out-of-sleep double take, immediate leap to attention and reaching for the nearest weapon - a potted plant. What does this say about him?
This scene is less than 2 minutes long once the characters get involved, but their reaction to the change in setting tells you a little about who they are, without you having to watch the rest of the movie. Use your book’s settings to illustrate something about who your characters are.
The way we describe a setting should tie into the overall emotion or direction of the genre(s) our book is aiming for. Books with a specific genre are usually aiming to keep, cultivate or enhance one mood throughout the experience.
Certain locations such as a morgue or a bridal store are likely to be attached to certain genres. It’s less likely that an adventure novel would start in a law office. Conversely, a romance is least likely to start with a gruesome murder scene.
A crime novel or thriller is always aiming to keep you off-balance with fear and tension, so its scenery descriptions are visceral and meant to inspire unease or dread. Romance books, on the other hand, want you to feel warmth and excitement of the sexual variety.
Consider the following scene of a man entering a bathroom where a woman is showering.
At first she wasn’t sure she’d heard the creak of her old bathroom door. The hinges were always squeaky, but that was to be expected from a Victorian-style apartment. The pipes were frequently noisy, but never like this. Clouds of steam rose under her nose. She quickly wiped her eyes, and in doing so dropped her wet sponge on her foot. She reached for it, but slipped and hit her knee on the side of the tub. She cursed as pain shot up her thigh.
A thump beyond the curtain made her skin prickle, despite the heat. She traced her fingers along the slick, grimy tile to the scalding iron faucet. Her wet skin scraped on the old metal’s sharp edges as she turned the pipe off and the shower trickled to a stop. Water fled from the aged porcelain, making a long, echoing sound as the pipes rattled. She stared down at the black hole of the drain as it uttered a long, low moan. She turned, her toes sliding on the slippery floor and stepped out of the tub. She flinched as the back of her calf touched the marble curve of the tub’s rim. She gasped at the chill… and then at the masked man standing two feet in front of her.
At first she wasn’t sure she’d heard the creak of her old bathroom door. The hinges always sang but that was to be expected from an old Grecian-style apartment. The pipes frequently put on their own performance. Clouds of steam rose under her nose and she squeezed the heavy sponge between her breasts, letting the warmth cascade down her body. The sponge slipped out of her grasp. As she knelt to retrieve it, she ran her hands down her thighs. All those mornings she’d spent running were paying off. A thump beyond the curtain made her jump. She called out her lover’s name. She traced her fingers along the old patterned tile to iron faucet which was still plenty warm from her shower. She grinned a little as she gripped the pipe in her hand, mentally comparing it to the man who’d spent the night in her bed. The water drained with a groan and the shower trickled to a stop. She braced herself on the cold metal rim of the tub as she climbed out. The floor was slick though and she slid, her legs splaying like a doe. She flinched as her back touched the metal curve of the tub’s rim. She felt her nipples harden. She gasped at the sensation… and then at delicious naked man standing two feet in front of her.
Now the location is the same, but the approaches are very different based purely on what genre your book is aimed at. So no matter what your setting is, you should always keep in mind what your target audience is looking for. Now imagine how you’d write that same scene, in that same setting if the book was Comedic, Science Fiction, Literary Fiction, or even Adventure.
SPOON-FEED THE PLOT
One of the essential elements of storytelling is knowing that all scenes in your work must be relevant to the plot or the character in order to be relevant to the reader. There are many different tools and devices we can use as storytellers to share bits of information or plot to the readers. One of these is your setting. Your setting can reveal vital information to the reader about the plot of your story. How many movies have you seen where the camera makes a slow tracking shot over a series of family photos on a dresser, which gives you background information on the first character you meet? Consider any books you may have read where one setting or location was highlighted at the start or end of the hero’s journey.
*Minor Spoilers for GR3T3L-1 (Good Tales For Bad Dreams #4) to follow*
In my last short story, GR3T3L-1 (a sci-fi adaptation of the Hansel & Gretel tale), my dual robot protagonists are marooned on an unknown planet. Along their journey, GR3T3L discovers that the planet is home to a naturally occurring form of heat-reactive crystal. When they eventually encounter a massive crystalline structure on the surface, GR3T3L is able to figure out that such a structure could only have been created by a ship crash landing on the surface. The resulting heat bloom caused the crystal to solidify, creating the setting for the climax of the story. GR3T3L discovers that the structure exists because its commanders shot down the ship and thus created it; this influences the actions the robots take next.
That crystalline structure is vital to the story not only because its creation is part of the plot, but that it provides the setting for the finale and provides incentives for each character’s subsequent actions. The scenes that follow its creation could not have been set anywhere else. The How and Why it exists is central to the story, our characters’ journey and therefore to the reader.
Other examples of settings which spoon-feed the plot include:
i) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry - Harry Potter series
ii) Hadley’s Hope - the human colony from LV-426 - Aliens (1986)
The main question you need to be asking yourself for any setting you pick for your scene is this:
Why is this setting vital to this scene?
Now your mileage may vary in how important you believe settings are in general, but if you’d like your scenes to be more fleshed out and create lasting images in your reader’s mind, then consider strengthening your setting’s relationship to your plot.
WALKING INTO ROOMS AND TALKING
Pet peeve time. While this trope may be more prevalent in some genres than others, whenever we have characters simply walking into a room and engaging in dialogue without the setting having some relevance to the discussion, then you might as well have set the scene in a blank white room. You know the kind - usually you find them in cell phone commercials, where the phones are floating in some nondescript place. If your chosen setting can double as a backdrop for an IPhone commercial, then you’re not taking advantage of the potential richness of your scene setting. Characters should never just walk into a blank room and talk. I’d like you to think about this in a more visual way.
Here is an (in)famous scene from “The Matrix Reloaded”. At the time of release, this scene was lambasted for being overly wordy, indecipherable and needlessly confusing, particularly in contrast to all of the straightforward action that had come before.
Now if we were to rely simply on dialogue to sell this scene, the vast majority of the audience would not have a clue as to what the hell Colonel Sanders is saying, however because the setting included a pen, a chair and a bank of infinite-depth screens, we are able to get a general grasp of the situation based on how these elements were used.
Ie. The Architect is seated in the only chair with a posture implying power. Behind him the row of screens illustrate his various points, be it Neo’s emotions or future events in the narrative. The Architect, while limited in his expressions is allowed to interact with the only 2 props in the scene. His tap of the pen changes what the screens show.
Now this scene is all dialogue, but the setting here is still very important. The starkness of the white floor and ceiling reinforce that this place is artificial. The screens allow us to see things inside the character’s mind without dialogue and the chair represents power. Imagine how the impact of this scene would change if it had been set:
i) In a KFC restaurant
ii) Beside a Community Swimming Pool
iii) In a briefing room in the Pentagon
iv) In Zion (The Last City of the Free People)
v) On the Nebuchadnezzar (Morpheus’s ship)
So do not assume that because a scene doesn't have action (be it of the ‘splodey or sexy variety) that it doesn’t need a setting. Let the setting inform and reflect the nature of the story and the interaction between your characters.
And there we have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this SIA tutorial on setting up your scenes. Now get out there and make your settings shine!