Setting the Scene

Storytelling is perhaps the oldest form of creative expression, with the possible exception of drawing.  Ancient hunters would share tales of their exploits, including the pits they dug to trap animals and the way the dust would get in their eyes while they took down their kill.  Parents would tell children legends to teach them things – just as they do today. There are huge differences, of course, with how we tell stories now.

Surroundings are not immediately understood, in these times, between the storyteller and his audience.  The more “modern” we are, the more we have to fall back on the uses of our basic senses to share what kind of environment exists in a particular story.  When one is writing this story, one has to share a scene without making it heavy–but still communicating.  Too much detail-dumping will bore a reader. In a commercial market where authors are competing against the sometimes-more-accessible “scenic environments” of video games, for example, boring the audience is absolutely a bad idea.

Use The Senses

When a person walks into a room, they automatically take in details of it, cataloguing them for future reference.  But, as Sherlock Holmes says, people don’t always observe what they see. As a writer, our job is not only to observe, but to inform the reader, so that they may be where we are in terms of the story.

We have five senses, plus a sixth one that could be called a “tension sensor.” Incorporate these into a scene as you are writing it, but don’t do it all at once.  Scene setting should be woven through action and dialogue, not stated as a stage direction.  A character should “hear chairs creaking under the weight of six heavy men,” instead of being told that half a dozen men sat down.

It is said that olfactory senses are those closest tied to memory.  Discuss what smells are caught – favorably or otherwise – as people walk past the narrative voice.  We note in our own minds what scents we meet, but how to convey it?  There is a staleness in a home at the end of winter in a cold place, for example, which is why a good cleaning and airing out is necessary at the beginning of spring.  Pipe tobacco has an aroma unique to itself, that lingers.  Baby shampoo imparts a certain innocent fragrance to a child’s head.  Characters can note these things in internal monologues or have them referenced as they move through the room, interacting with other characters or the environment itself.

Tied to smell, there is taste.  Who has not smelled something so strongly that they could taste it?  Not all environments lend themselves to tasting, so do not force it, but remember to include this sense when it is appropriate without going overboard.  If the focus of a scene is a meal, it is right and proper to talk about buttery biscuits, perhaps, or the tang of Hollandaise sauce, but only the truly obsessed parse out the mineral content in the water.

And don’t forget the sense of touch.  It is often neglected in writing, but the brushing of fingers on a dusty sideboard is a unique sensation.  Feeling the temperature and texture of a floor through feet is normal, so much so that we overlook it.  We have nerve endings everywhere, but our feet are inundated with them, so don’t forget to use them.

Think in Terms of Order

To avoid dumping the scene in your reader’s lap in a vaguely defined lump, consider again the early storyteller.  They wove their stories as the audience experienced them, leading them into a captivating tale.  As you share details of a scene, share them as an experience, not separate from the story, but an integral part of it.

This might sound odd, but when I am expecting company, I clean my house in terms of how my guests will experience it, starting with the point of entry and working my way around in traffic patterns.  I prepare the experience, in a sense.  When I write a scene, I think of it in terms of how my narrative voice or chosen perspective would sense it.

Here is an example taken from “The Last Tree Sale.”

She crossed the flocking covered strip in the middle of the pine-scented rectangle, inhaling deeply and exhaling a Christmas-lit breath cloud into the chilled night air. A low fog was rolling in, another reason to be on her guard. “Merry Christmas,” she said with an edgy brightness. “Can I help you?”

Here, the reader is given necessary information regarding environment and that intangible “feeling” one can experience when meeting an unknown person.  Even if the reader didn’t know already that the heroine was selling Christmas trees at an outdoor lot, they could guess that.  The scene presents cold, damp air, the scent of pine, tiny Christmas lights that illuminate the area, and a tension in the heroine with her “edgy” tone.  She is clearly trying to play off her nervousness, but the audience knows it’s there.

Next time you are in a place that catches your interest, take notes.  Write down what each of your five senses – and maybe a sixth! – tells you about the scene.  Translate the sensations into words.  Soon, doing so will become a habit, as is Sherlock Holmes’ habit of observation.  Involve your readers, bring them with you, and make them experience a moment at your direction.

It’s a heady, heady experience to have an enraptured audience.  Ask any storyteller.

Originally posted in May, 2012 at The Fictionista Workshop