Friday, July 14, 2017

Writing Basics 101: Setting the Scene

“Set the scene.”

I remember hearing those words way back in middle school when I was first learning about how to write a story. My teacher wanted us to mention where the story was taking place and add in details like “They sat in a chair” or  “The house was made of brick.”

As I got older, I understood that setting the scene meant adding in more sensory details. “The smell of fresh lemon was in the air” or  “The rough grain of the wood against her hand was uncomfortable.”

I’ve been writing for a long time now. You’d think I’d have “setting the scene” down.

But I don’t. In fact, an editor I’ve been working with recently says “setting the scene” is the number one thing she comments on when it comes to my writing.  I set the scene, but not quite enough. There are always sensory details and descriptive wording I leave out.

If you don’t “set the scene” properly, you’re missing a valuable opportunity to provide insight into your characters. Setting the scene gives us juicy details we don’t even realize help shape the inner workings of a character’s mind.

Let’s go back to this example: The house was made of brick.

What kind of brick? Is it a one-story home? Two story? Is there a balcony or a porch? Is the house close to the road or faraway? Is it a cookie cutter house in a suburban neighborhood or an older home in the country?

Pretty basic stuff, right? Why does it matter?

Little details like that can give us information about a character’s socio-economic situation. It can tell us what part of the country they live in. It can tell us if they are snobby or down to earth.  It builds a picture of who they are that isn’t built on just dialogue. We can make inferences about them based on setting information.

Go back and look at your work. It’s basic Writing 101, but you might be surprised to see how much you are leaving out in your scene setting. When I write, I typically write hard and fast, trying to get the basic plotline done quickly. Then I go back and look at each scene, making sure to set the scene every time a location changes.  Sensory elements are woven in here, too.  It is worth the time in the editing process to do this and will strengthen your story more than you can imagine.

So dig a little deeper! If you do this, your writing will be that much richer!


  1. I just critiqued some novel chapters that were wonderful except for this. Forgetting to tell us where we are and what it looks like can leave the reader adrift in her own imagination. When you give a detail later--it's too late. The reader has already filled it in! I do believe in leaving a lot to the reader's imagination, but not the basics. Good post!

    1. Thanks, Kaye! I can't believe I'm still guilty of not setting the scene as much as I need to after all these years! However, I have also read several novels lately that were wonderful, but could have used a bit more in this area. Thanks for commenting! Hope you are doing well!

  2. This is one of the lessons pounded into me by my critique group early on, and I still have to go back in my editing to be sure to add the sensory details.

  3. It helps me to remember there are five senses and they each play a role in a story. It's easy to forget, so I'll often insert those details during the editing process.

  4. Yes, I do the same. I write fast and hard and then go back to add in five senses. Again, such a basic thing to do. You'd think it would be something automatic in my head at this point.