The best scenes are those that pull us in and make us feel as if we are
there seeing the sights and feeling the action for ourselves.
I recently watched a Stephen King movie, “Bag of Bones” and was struck by how masterfully the scene was set. But it was more than just scene setting. The director gave us a quick glimpse of what the place looked like, then went directly to the main character who, after hearing a noise…a scratching sound…awakens from a nightmare. He reacts by sitting up. The room is semi-dark and ominous. My heartbeat quickened, not because of the dark, but because of the sound.
The man, still groggy from sleep and reliving the nightmare about his dead wife, listens and hears nothing. He begins to relax. I relax, too, but not completely. And just at that moment, a rustling, snuffling, deep breathing sound comes from under the bed. My heart leaps to my throat, a cold chill runs up my spine, and as the man slowly leans down to look under the dust ruffle, I instinctively cover my eyes. In setting the story up this way, the writer/director has immediately tapped into one of the greatest childhood fears…the monster under the bed.
And I felt the same fear I did as a child.
In that one scene, King has set up far more than a simple description of the setting could ever do. He sets the tone. He lets you, the reader, know…this is going to be a scary story…and you will be afraid. There’s no question that the hero is going to be in deep and scary trouble. We know little about the story, but already, we’ve felt the character’s pounding heart, the sense that he’s not alone. We know that fear first hand and we can empathize…and because we do, we want to know what’s going to happen next.
Like movies, setting the scene in a novel is about so much more than telling the reader where the character is and what the place looks like. It’s about tapping into the reader’s psyche so he not only visualizes the setting, he “feels” it. He relates.
Using emotion to set the scene is one of the most powerful ways to make your setting do double duty…and hook the reader at the same time.
The setting my new "Secrets of Spirit Creek" series, was inspired by my fond feelings about a place in my home state. The story is set in the small town of Spirit Creek, Arizona, near Sedona, a setting that rivals the Grand Canyon in its magnificent landscape. Arizona is my adopted state and I frequently go hiking in the red rock mountains near Sedona, so it seemed natural to choose that as a setting for the Spirit Creek series, three connected books, REMEMBER ME, TRUST ME, and RESCUE ME. But I was truly inspired when I realized how much more I could do with it. It isn’t the magnificence of the setting that’s important to my heroine, it’s how living there makes her feel. The eons-old rock is a testament to longevity, a symbol of stability, and gives her a sense of permanence, something she’s never had. She feels as if she’s finally found her place in the world…that she belongs, and I use those emotions to help set the scene.
Setting the scene with emotion was especially important since the setting plays into the heroine’s internal conflict. Hiding the fact that she has PTSD, she’s careful not to expose herself to things she knows might trigger an episode. Something as simple as a car backfire or the evening news can set her on that path and when she feels the first signs of an episode, she focuses on her surroundings--her physical reality--to bring herself down. In writing from this perspective, I focused more on the surroundings than I ever have and in doing so, I added another layer and made the story and characters more complex.
When I begin a scene, I orient the reader to time and place. Sometimes that’s all I need to do, but 99 percent of the time, I want the setting to do double or triple duty. I want the setting to come alive for the reader. The most powerful way to do that is through my character’s emotions…and I get to his emotions through his senses…what he sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. Whenever I find myself simply describing the setting, I stop and ask, ‘what is my character feeling…and why does he feel that way?
When your protagonist sees something, he has an instant, visceral reaction based on his unique experiences. Maybe he winces at seeing a mother slam her child into a wooden chair in the corner of the spare, dingy room …because in the back of his mind he remembers how his mother used to beat him. Or maybe he smiles at seeing a cluster of childish drawings on the wall in his doctor’s otherwise sterile office, the same kind of pictures his dead son used to like to draw. The scent of cinnamon in a modern stainless steel kitchen might make him think of his grandmother, the only person who ever cared about him. Maybe the bitter taste of chicory coffee served at the 1950s style all-night diner with posters of iconic movie stars plastered on its walls and juke boxes in every booth jacked up the exhilaration he felt he night he killed his first victim--and recreating that feeling is why he goes there after each kill.
When tempted to simply describe a place, try using your character’s emotions to convey the setting and see how it changes things. Try it on any kind of description and see what happens.
When reading, do you pay attention to descriptions of the setting or to what the character is thinking and feeling?
What writing techniques do you use to set the scene?
Linda Style copyright 2012
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