Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Un-Set Scene

Awhile back I wrote a post on how to decide when you’ve over-described something. Today, I’d like to discuss the opposite problem, specifically as it relates to scenes.

As they read, most people will picture the events of the story in their minds, almost like scenes from a movie. An author’s task is to find a balance between too much description and too little description. They must describe a scene vividly enough for the majority of readers to picture it clearly, but not with such long-winded detail that a large number of readers might get bored. But often, authors fail to set a scene almost entirely.

I’m not talking about neglecting to mention the color of the carpet or the type of trees in the forest; I’m talking about forgetting to mention that the action is taking place inside a room of some sort or that your characters are in the forest. It’s surprising how many new writers don’t think to mention where a conversation is taking place. They might, for instance, mention that three characters are sitting at a table eating nachos while they argue, but they won’t tell us where the table is. It could be in a kitchen, a dining room, a bar, a restaurant, a cafeteria, or a break room, but the audience doesn’t know for sure until halfway through the conversation when a waiter comes in to ask them if they want dessert.

This is often called “White Room Syndrome,” because for all the audience can tell, the action is taking place in a blank white room. Great for the Matrix, but not so much for most other stories.

So, how little is too little when it comes to description? Here’s a few basic bits of information about setting that you should generally try to get across to your readers within the first few paragraphs of a scene:

Where is the immediate action taking place? Are your characters indoors or outdoors? If they’re indoors, what sort of room are they in—a kitchen, a bedroom, an office, a parking garage, a space station control center? If they are outdoors, what sort of terrain is around them—forest, plains, a lake, a river, red-rock desert, the void of space? What is the weather like? Give your readers a few words to set the backdrop to the action.

Where are your characters at in that space? Are they clustered around a table in the corner? Is one of them sitting on the ground against a rock while the other two climb a tree at the edge of a clearing? Are they strapped into seats at their stations on the bridge of the space ship? Give some basic information about where your characters are in relation to the setting and to one another.

Whose setting is this? Does the room, house, car, spaceship, or even the field or the planet, belong to one of the characters? Are they trespassing? Are they simply out in the unclaimed wild? This can be cleared up with a simple adjective—they sat in Calvin’s kitchen or he ran through the king’s forest. Are your characters masters, owners, regulars, visitors, strangers, or interlopers in this place?

What time of day is it? I don’t mean the exact hour and minute, but rather a general sense of time as it relates to the scene. Is it day, night, dawn, or dusk? Is it dark out or light out? A daytime conversation in the park will have a completely different feel than the same conversation in the same park in the middle of the night. If it is pertinent, you might want to give readers a sense of the season as well.

If this is the first scene of the story, then what time period is it in? Ever read a story that you thought was taking place in a medieval setting, only to have someone drive up in a car? Or a story that seemed modern until someone mentioned the warpgate to Jupiter? It’s pretty disconcerting. Try to give your readers a clear sense of the era (and by extension, the genre) right from the get-go.

If this is not the first scene of the story, then where is this setting in relation to previous settings? The importance of this information varies from story to story. You could write an entire story that takes place in an unnamed city without it ever being a problem—the character could move from their apartment to work to a bar to a seedy nightclub without you needing to explicitly state where are those places are in relation to one another. However, if you jump locations and characters from scene to scene this may become important—if the last scene was the King of Rohan at Helm’s Deep, and then you jump to the hobbits sneaking into Mordor, it could be helpful to let your readers know that they’ve moved several hundred leagues away.

And that’s really it. You can add more detail to the setting than what I’ve listed above, but you probably shouldn’t have less. Imagine that you’re sketching the scene out with a pencil—these are the most basic lines that you’ll need for it to be clear that you’re drawing a scene and not just a person, a place, or a thing. For more tips on writing description, check out some of the posts listed here and here.

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