A Look at Scene Setting in Writing
Don’t leave it to chance. Scene setting is important to know.
What is Scene Setting?
Basic scene setting is a fundamental skill which every writer needs to perfect. A scene is more or less a species of character. Your scene needs some care and attention—and description.
Let’s look at some ways to do it.
All the Old Familiar Places and Times
When your story takes place on Earth during the present day, you’re in luck! You can get away without going over basic information. Present-day Moscow has cars. Today in Paris, people used the metric system. Current day Kentucky has telephones.
So your really basic information is already there. Don’t waste time or pixels or reader good will by explaining any of that, unless it’s somehow important. E. g. if your Russian character was raised in the sticks, maybe they never saw a car before. If your Parisian is a transplant from the United States, she might occasionally forget that most countries use different systems for weights and measures. And if your Kentuckian was deaf and now suddenly can hear (and also led a sheltered life) telephones might be odd things which now have a purpose they didn’t have before.
But even for a place found on Planet Earth which you think you know, you should still do some digging. And don’t just look at touristy sites! I live in Boston. It’s not all Faneuil Hall Marketplace, not by a long shot. By the way, here’s a public service announcement from me. Harvard University is in Cambridge, not Boston. And it is far from the only university in this city.
This helped to inform how I wrote Mettle. Present-day Boston has cell phones, triple decker buildings, and French fries. Just like pretty much every other present-day place does.
Familiar Place, Unfamiliar Time
Then there’s the scenario where your location is close or familiar. But the time is not now. So, what is it, the past or the future?
Forward into the Past
If it’s the past, then you need to do some research. Wikipedia is not a good final source, but it’s not a bad first one. What I mean is, you can start there, particularly if you are unsure about names or parameters. But then you need to branch out.
Hence if you are trying to determine whether there were gas lamps lighting the streets of Berlin in 1740, you might want to start with looking up gas lamps and moving on from there. If they were invented later, then that answers your question. But if they were invented earlier (I honestly don’t know), then you should be looking at other sources.
You can check footnotes, or just do some creative Googling. I have found The Library of Congress has some great old images. But you may need to spend some time looking, as not everything is logically labelled.
Scene Setting for The Real Hub of the Universe
This was the exact situation for the Real Hub… series. A lot of us think we know the Victorian Era. But we don’t necessarily. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. In the United States, this is a time frame from Presidents Martin Van Buren (the 8th person to hold the title) to William McKinley (the 25th). The sewing machine was invented in 1851. In 1875, Edison applied for a patent for the light bulb. So, you can see that the time period encompasses a lot of changes. People from the first year of her reign wouldn’t recognize all the trappings of life from her reign’s last year.
One way I set the scene was to only use language which was in use at the time. Etymy Online has proven to be exceptionally valuable for this. One thing I learned is that the word faze was in use. Subtly avoiding anachronistic language helps with scene setting in the past.
Back to the Future
For the future, of course you can invent what you like (and I will get into that with another blog post). But it pays to do some research anyway. Get an idea of what’s coming. If, say, solar-powered belt buckles are being patented, then why not put them in your near-future story? However, if you are writing a deeper, later future, you might want to make them passé.
Scene Setting for the Obolonk Universe
In this universe, our planet is divided into several megalopolises. In between, Earth is mainly zoological parks, going back to the original savannas and steppes and the like it was before human habitation. The Boston Meg encompasses all of New England. Rio-Recife-Montevideo is on the eastern side of South America, and so on.
Familiar Times, Unfamiliar Places
For alien places, consider what it means if the gravity is stronger, or weaker. What happens if the atmosphere is thinner? One way to make things easier on you is to research similar locations. The Andes or the Himalayas could stand in for a planet with thinner air, for example.
Let’s Go Off-World
One way I set the scene in the Obolonks trilogy and its successor, the Time Addicts trilogy, was to adopt naming conventions. As a result, every town and landmark in the Jovian System comes from rock groups. Hence, Ankaville is the capital of Callisto. The names of famous women work for Venus. Hence, Navratilovaville and Garland City. The naming conventions also helped tremendously when deciding on other things like the names of schools or sports teams.
One idea I got (which I love, if I do say so myself) was to decide that terraforming operations are smelly. Hence, every orb would have a signature smell. Is it pine, or a fireplace? Lemons or chestnuts?
Consider not just the look, but what happens when you engage your other senses. Is the place hot? Smelly? Smoggy? Is the landscape muddy? Frozen? Sandy? Urban and loud? Do your characters have to climb? Cross rivers?
Scene Setting for Untrustworthy
For Untrustworthy, the people and the scene were both so utterly unfamiliar that I needed more familiar touchstones. This meant adding a central river which characters had to cross using bridges. It also meant creating a new form of going, the transportation sleigh. A reader even asked me if Caboss is a snowy world. And I’m still not sure! But all these alien things have familiarity baked right in. We all know what sleighs and bridges are. This made it easier for a reader to connect to what went on in that book.
You can put the reader in the action by engaging multiple senses. Latch onto the familiar if you can. Analogize to give the reader a faster understanding of the place. Do the homework, even on the small almost throwaway scenes, so your readers won’t have to.Scene Setting #amwriting Click To Tweet