Autumn is coming. An afternoon breeze scatters dried yellow flowers from the redwood tree across the patio. A few broken petals creep in through a gap under the back door and I will have to vacuum for the third time this weekend. I bring my favourite Royal Albert teacup to my lips, drawing in the aromatic flavour of English Breakfast tea and then I close my eyes and think about how to write an evocative scene setting.
I’ve just set the scene of me sitting at the kitchen table, writing this blog post. The description is a bit flowery, maybe (and there are literally flowers in it) but I thought it might be more interesting than starting with: ‘This blog post is about …’
As you may have gathered from this introduction, when it comes to writing I struggle with effective scene settings. I didn’t realise how basic my setting descriptions were until a tutor pointed it out to me after reading part of my draft manuscript. I’d been trying to avoid pretentious over-description, and in doing so, had gone way too far the other way. I would make a general reference to where the characters were (e.g. a bar) and then launch straight into action and dialogue.
In an effort to improve my writing skills, I recently attended the Novelists’ Boot Camp run by the Queensland Writers Centre. A major drawcard in attending this course was the tutor – Dr Kim Wilkins. Kim is an experienced writer and academic and her biography features an extensive list of published novels, scholarly articles, conference presentations and awards.
At the Boot Camp, Kim talked about how she does what she calls ‘orient and anchor.’ She also discussed this on her blog and in an article she wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing (ed Neilsen and Morley, 2012) called ‘Genre and Speculative Fiction’, where she states: ‘In each scene, you should aim to orient the reader quickly, then anchor the setting securely in their imagination.’
Kim suggests doing this within the first two paragraphs of a scene. Where are we? Is it day or night? Are we inside or outside? Whose head are we in? Too much description and you sound like a show-off. Too little description and it sounds like the characters are in a white room.
In A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings, author Mary Buckham states: ‘The reader will be mentally asking these questions, and the longer you keep the information from them, the less they will focus on what you want them to focus on. The reader will become more removed from the story and the characters, and instead by trying to figure out the where, when, who, or why.’
Consider this example from the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of The Dry by Jane Harper:
Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats. A bottleneck of black and grey was already forming at the entrance as Aaron Falk drove up, trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves.
Neighbours, determined but trying not to appear so, jostled each other for the advantage as the scrum trickled through the doors. Across the road the media circled.
Falk parked his sedan next to a ute that had also seen better days and killed the engine. The air conditioner rattled into silence and the interior began to warm immediately. He allowed himself a moment to scan the crowd, although he didn’t really have time. He’d dragged his heels the whole way from Melbourne, blowing out the five-hour drive to more than six. Satisfied no-one looked familiar, he stepped out of the car.
From reading these opening paragraphs, we know the following:
- We are at a church where quite a large crowd is gathered for a funeral.
- We are in Aaron Falk’s head. He is there to attend the funeral. He’s had a long drive from Melbourne and is running a bit late. He expects he might recognise someone at the funeral, so the reader assumes he has been there before.
- We can feel how hot and dry it is. Aaron drives up ‘trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves.’ When he turns off the air conditioner ‘the interior began to warm immediately.’ The author doesn’t simply write ‘it was a hot day.’
Kim Wilkins suggests continuing to add anchor points throughout the beginning of the scene, interspersing them with action and dialogue. Choose evocative words that paint a picture for the reader and consider each of the five senses (sight, taste, touch, smell, sound) in a way that shows how the setting impacts the viewpoint character. ‘You are recording the effect of the setting on somebody’s sense and somebody’s thoughts.’
The following excerpt from the first chapter of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith takes place early in the scene after it has been established that Robin, our viewpoint character, got engaged to her boyfriend the night before and is now walking through London on her way to a job interview.
She found it almost accidentally, following a narrow alleyway called Denmark Place out into a short street full of colourful shopfronts: windows full of guitars, keyboards and every kind of musical ephemera. Red and white barricades surrounded another open hole in the road, and workmen in fluorescent jackets greeted her with early-morning wolf-whistles, which Robin pretended not to hear.
She consulted her watch. Having allowed her usual margin of time for getting lost, she was a quarter of an hour early. The nondescript black-painted doorway of the office she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Café; the name of the occupant of the office was written on a scrappy piece of lined paper Sellotaped beside the buzzer for the second floor. On an ordinary day, without the brand-new ring glittering upon her finger, she might have found this off-putting; today, however, the dirty paper and the peeling paint on the door were, like the tramps from last night, mere picturesque details on the backdrop of her grand romance.
In reading this description, our senses come alive with this little London street. The author doesn’t write ‘it was noisy’ – the reader can fill in the blanks with the description of road works and wolf-whistling workmen. There are music stores and a café. We are shown the setting as it’s experienced by Robin. Mary Buckham states: ‘Anchoring the reader when you are writing in deep POV means that Setting is seen through that character’s interpretation and emotional state, her background, and her past and current experiences.’ In the above description, we learn Robin has allowed time to get lost on her way to the interview, so we deduce she must be an organised person. She is so elated by her recent engagement that her destination with its ‘dirty paper and peeling paint’ – something that would usually repel her – doesn’t bother her at all, giving the reader an idea about what she is accustomed to and where her priorities lie.
While these examples convey vivid settings, it can be very difficult when you sit down to write your own descriptive settings. Here are some suggestions on how you can become inspired:
- Make a Pinterest board of evocative images or write a list of words that capture the mood of your scene and that you want to include in your description.
- Read and research the place where your story is set.
- Think about how the setting might impact the day-to-day things your character would do. While you may not include that information in your story, it will encourage you to think about your setting.
- Start writing about your setting without worrying if you’re doing it right. Writing is a great way to learn more about your world. Even if it doesn’t end up in your novel, you’ll have a better idea about what details add to your story, and what details are unimportant.
- Overwrite the description of your setting and then edit it later when you know what details are important to your story. Kim Wilkins recommends cutting descriptions longer than four sentences.
Here is an example from the first paragraphs of chapter two of my cozy mystery The Princess Murders, followed by a redrafted version with more specific details.
‘That’s not all,’ said Bianca.
Sylvie leaned towards Bianca to hear her over the growing noise in the bar. More people had arrived and the air was hot and thick. As Sylvie shifted in her seat, the bare skin on the back of her thighs stuck to the plastic stool.
‘That’s not all,’ said Bianca.
Sylvie leaned towards Bianca. To her left, a stocky older man with knee high socks gave a cry of despair, slammed his glass onto the table and waved his fist at the cricket match on the television that hung above the bar. A crowd of middle-aged women in animal print blouses claimed the table beside them, dragging their stools across the floor and then suddenly and simultaneously letting out an uproar of shrill laughter, reminiscent of kookaburras. Sylvie shifted in her seat, the bare skin on the back of her thighs sticking to the plastic stool. The air was hot and thick and although it was early for storm season, she wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a storm later that night.
As you can see from the above example, the first draft was vague and boring and we all fell asleep. There are some improvements in the revised draft. Rather than just saying there were ‘more people’ in the bar, now we can see some of those people – there’s a man watching cricket and a group of rowdy women. I don’t need to describe each and every person in the bar in that scene, but to provide enough description to give the reader a sense of what is happening around Sylvie and Bianca.
Instead of saying ‘the growing noise in the bar’, I describe some of the noises – the man cries out and slams his glass down, stools are dragged across the floor and the women erupt in ‘shrill laughter, reminiscent of kookaburras.’ This explains why Sylvie needs to lean in towards Bianca to be able to hear her speak.
The air is still ‘hot and thick’ but now it’s causing Sylvie, who is sweaty and sticking uncomfortably to her stool, to wonder if there will be a storm later. The revised draft gives the reader a better idea of how the setting has an effect on Sylvie, the viewpoint character. It still needs more work as I consider which specific details will be most important in telling the story, but now that I know how to orient the reader and anchor my setting, I have faith I will get there.
Hopefully before Winter.