Thursday, April 10, 2008

Setting The Scene

One of my early American literature classes at Pepperdine focused on the body of works by Nathaniel Hawthorne (for those of you who couldn't care less about early American lit, he's the author of The Scarlet Letter - that book your English teacher used to torture you in high school). I'm a fan of Hawthorne and the dark, intricate themes running through his works but one thing Hawthorne lacked completely was the element of setting.

My professor expounded at length this missing element, claiming that Hawthorne deliberately left his settings vague and murky as a statement on his current social clime and to emphasize that the morality lessons contained in his writings transcended time and place.

All well and good, if it's true. Since Hawthorne's been dead for quite some time, it's difficult to know for sure if he meant to mostly ignore the settings of his works or if he was one of many authors who struggle to make setting come alive for the reader.

Setting the scene grounds your reader in time and place, gives them touchstones of familiarity within your work and helps them build the landscape of your world inside their mind. Setting is also one of those elements that can easily be lost amid dialogue, plot, and pacing. Give too little setting and your reader can't "see the movie" in their mind. Give too much and readers begin skimming your pages, looking for dialogue.

My first draft of DYING TO REMEMBER was a spectacular failure in regards to setting. I overloaded my first few pages with sweeping, dramatic prose ("Purple billowing clouds bruised the twilight sky as storm winds lashed day into night." Not bad unless you have to read two pages of it!) and then, satisfied that I had introduced my readers to Ireland, I all but ignored setting from that point forward and left my readers floundering to create a mental landscape with no real clues from me.

When Celeste Bradley read my first draft, she nailed me on it and, hearing my frustration at how to interject setting without losing the pacing required of a suspense novel, gave me some excellent advice: Set the scene, Hollywood style.

When you watch a movie, at every scene change, the camera pans the new room/building/location, before settling in on the action and dialogue of the characters within the scene. The process of setting the cinematic scene takes mere seconds.

A novel requiring fast pacing or one with multiple scene changes per chapter (both true for DYING TO REMEMBER), needs a cinematic approach to setting. Two or three sentences, crafted wisely, set the scene for the reader, ground them in time and place, and build a mental landscape for your characters to freely roam.

As I practiced this approach, I discovered four keys to making setting work for my novels:

1. Take the time to set the scene in a new location (for me, usually 2-3 sentences) at the beginning of the scene without losing the voice of the novel.
If the voice of your novel is sassy and somewhat sarcastic (like Alexa), the setting needs to be delivered with overtones of the same. For example, in chapter one of SHADOWING FATE, I need to tell the reader that Alexa lives in New York and is comfortable, even affectionate, toward NY's personal idiosyncasies and I need her unique voice to shine throughout the narrative. I chose to start the chapter with her voice and then interject setting throughout the action to keep up the pace and to give the readers a sense of understanding New York as Alexa sees it. The first hint of setting arrives in paragraph three, is fleshed out in paragraph four, and then I add pieces of setting throughout the action as it's needed.

Why else would I be clinging to the side of an old brick apartment building on Fifth Avenue wearing a little red dress and a gorgeous pair of leopard print Manolo Blahnik stilettos?

I was four stories up, digging into the tiny ledges between brick and grout for balance. My bronze beaded clutch swung gently on my wrist. Beneath me, New Yorkers stalked the streets. Above me, a few intrepid stars winked in the velvet sky, their pale light no competition to the brilliance of downtown Manhattan. Two feet to my left, a fire escape led to an open window and the sound of breaking glass. I hoped the owner of the apartment was far from home.

2. Give your readers a familiar touchstone whenever you return to a location.

Never assume that because a reader has been inside your character's house five times already, they can easily call up the picture you want them to see. It's unnecessary to repeat the same descriptions throughout your novel (and indeed, if you do, you will be swiftly added to my "Donate To Goodwill" pile). What is necessary is to call to mind the details they already know so they are quickly grounded into your new scene.

The t.v. show Lost does this very well. We're in, what, season 5 now? It's not like I don't know the various locations - the beach, the Others' houses, the cave, the jungle, the stations...but just because I know them, doesn't mean the director can cut directly to each character and just start the scene. I need a second to place the scene in the known context of the island. The director accomplishes this by taking two seconds to pan the beach, showing me the makeshift homes, the food tent, and various characters busy in their daily life before the camera arrives at the characters who will be dominating the scene.

This works in a literary context when you choose one or two details about the setting you are returning to and give them to the reader via the characters inner monologue as you set up the scene. You can either choose to remind them of elements they already know (word them differently, par them down) or you can give them more details to round out their picture.

In SHADOWING FATE, I've already had a scene set in Alexa's office building and have described the lobby, her personal office, and the men's restroom (bet that made you curious...). Now, returning for another scene, I feed the reader a few more details in the midst of the action.

The halls of Gordon, Payne, and O’ Donnell are lit by antique bronze wall sconces placed every six feet. Combine those with deep burgundy carpets and the result is an atmosphere of hushed luxury and dimly lit wealth.

I blended into the well of shadows beside my office door by focusing on the cool, slightly dimpled surface of the cream-colored wall until my outward appearance matched it enough to fool someone hurrying by, neglecting to look closely at their surroundings. My father used to call this skill The Chameleon. My mother forbade me to ever use it in our house.

3. Interject setting throughout a scene rather than overloading the beginning.

Give your readers your cinematic sweep near the beginning of the scene, just enough to establish a mental landscape, and then feed them details as the scene unfolds. If you want to read a master at this technique (one of the few authors of suspense novels who uses gorgeous literary prose to describe his settings and takes his sweet time doing it without losing any of his plot's impact), pick up Dean Koontz's Velocity and lose yourself in the setting.

DYING TO REMEMBER is a fast-paced novel and I don't take the time to slowly unfold my setting because I want the pace to match the frantic, we're-running-out-of-time plot. I learned how to make every word count - how to interject a word or two of setting throughout my character's actions by paying attention to what my character was experiencing through their five senses.

Emily noticed two things when she entered the bathroom. One was the tiny claw-foot bathtub, complete with a circular shower curtain of shiny rose lace and a hand-held showerhead. The other was her suitcase.

Someone had been in the bedroom while she slept. She shivered. The fact that the “someone” was Quinn made it marginally better. After all, the man had obviously carried her here and tucked her into bed already. Bringing in her suitcase could hardly be considered intrusive.

She faced a delicately beveled mirror and narrowed her eyes. The cut on her forehead puffed out in a painful bruise and her eyes were shadowed but Emily bypassed all of that to stare at her clothes. In her rush to secure the room, she’d paid no attention to what she was wearing. Now, staring down at faded lavender pajamas, she was mortified.

He’d changed her clothes.

Gritting her teeth at the stiffness in her muscles, she yanked the pajamas off and turned to twist the faucet on the miniscule tub. She vividly remembered wearing jeans and a turtleneck on her trip to Ireland. Jeans, she recalled, that were a soggy, muddy mess by the time she made it to Finn’s Folly. So maybe he hadn’t wanted his fancy sheets covered in mud. She could cut him a little slack.
A quick glance at her body showed clean, glowing skin. She hissed out a breath.
He’d washed her too.

Anger came on the heels of her embarrassment as she spun the combination lock on her suitcase and grabbed shampoo and soap. He was a pig. Worse than a pig. She stepped into the tub and snatched the shower curtain closed.

What’s worse than a pig? A rat. A filthy rodent scuttling through sewers and carrying the plague to innocent children. She flipped the switch for the showerhead, yelping in surprise as icy water hit her face.

She was being unkind to animals. PETA would be offended. She gingerly tested the shower nozzle and found the water alternating between blasts of heat and ice. Resigned to her fate, she quickly hosed down her hair while she searched for a more appropriate insult.

Insensitive idiot. That had potential. The hot water was all but gone and she shivered. Twisting the faucet off, she grabbed a plush towel from the shelf beside the tub.

In the time it took her to drag on another pair of jeans, a stretchy white t-shirt and subdue her curly hair into a tidy braid, she’d come up with an additional twelve insults. Whisking on powdered foundation and a quick swipe of mascara, Emily faced her reflection in the mirror and chose the best of the bunch.
He was a dead man.

4. Have someone read your work and describe your characters and locations to you.

If they can't or their descriptions are radically different from what you intended, roll up your sleeves and fix it.

The two biggest mistakes an author makes in crafting the element of setting are to rush through the writing, neglecting to set the scene for the reader, or to ponderously dump paragraph after paragraph of painstakingly detailed setting on your reader. You should have all those painstaking details in your head. You should feed them to your reader with a light and steady hand. Using the cinematic approach to setting can help you do so successfully.


  1. Very helpful! I need to practice interspersing the setting throughout instead of just giving it in two solid paragraphs and then leaving it alone. :)

    I love these Writing Process posts, btw. Thanks for doing them.

  2. You used the wrong form of "to" in the last paragraph.

  3. Fixed. That's what happens when I type posts without wearing my reading glasses...

  4. This was very helpful, I just re-read my almost completed novel and I pretty much pulled a Nathaniel Hawthorne via lack of setting, lol. Like I mention where my character is but I rarely ever go into detail unless I want to set the mood and even then it's just like 'biker bar meets bakery' type thing. Well, I do go into descriptions about her dream, but that's because it works since she doesn't normally dream so it's all new to her, when it comes to places she knows I don't say anything.

    Next scene I write I'll put this into play then see if my critique partner notices a difference.

  5. Mayberry and Jage - glad you found this useful! =)

  6. *grins* As CJ can tell you, I too have struggled with the issue of setting.

    More often than not it's a result of being so darn focused on my characters that I don't pay much attention to where they are - or more accurately I forget to tell everyone else where they are.

    Because I have a very vivid picture most of the time.


    At this point I just roll with it and trust in my CPs to smack me when they can tell I'm too focused on the characters and they have no clue where the scene is taking place.

    Then I clean it up in the second round. Add in the description (in much the same manner CJ described with a little intro and scattered pieces further in.) It works at the moment. :D Maybe eventually I'll get to the point where I'm putting it in on the first run.


  7. Oh, so you WERE trying to torture us by making us read The Scarlet Letter....I'm sorry, but that book was awful! I rather enjoyed The Great Gatsby for some unknown reason. I'll bet it's fun to hear this now :)

  8. Katy - thanks for adding your perspective! =)

    Angie (which is wierd because I'm used to you as "Angela" but I bet not half as wierd as being asked to call me C.J. now instead of Mrs. Redwine!) -

    I'd like to know what the point of enduring four years at Pepperdine would be if I didn't get to torture my students with the classics?? Plus, you can't graduate high school without reading The Scarlet Letter. I'd be run out on a rail.

  9. This is solid advice. Thanks for posting.


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