Recently, I read an excerpt of Pat Conroy’s latest novel, South of Broad, set in his beloved Charleston, South Carolina, in Southern Living Magazine. If Conroy does anything well, and of course he does, it’s setting the scene.
Many authors feel it’s important to grab the reader right away by placing them in the middle of a traumatic scene on the first page. Conroy draws the reader in slowly – seductively. I think this is harder, and that the other way is sometimes the lazy way.
A talented writer doesn’t just describe places in which the characters move around, he puts the reader in the action with the character. Setting a scene is not just about identifying the location of the character or the story, though this is important, it’s about how the location impacts and relates to the story. Certain simple questions need to be answered when setting a scene. Does the scene take place inside a building or outside? Is it day or night? What’s the weather like? How does it smell? How does it feel? Is it clean, dirty, or noisy? Use all the senses in setting a scene, but only if the information is relative to the story. Show us, DON’T TELL.
Describing a scene will most likely result in the reader growing bored, and putting the book down. Following is an example of describing (telling) a scene:
Joe was crossing the street. About half way across the sky opened up, raining on him. He cursed. He ran for cover tripping on a curb. He was cold, and his mood turned from sunny to blue.
Here’s the same scene shown with relevance to the story at hand, drawing the reader in:
“Damn, I forgot my umbrella. Wouldn’t you know the sky would open up now – now when I’m so close to finding the answer to the puzzle.” Joe ran for cover tripping on the curb. He caught himself in time to keep from falling headlong through the window of the local drugstore. He shivered shaking off the chill, and wiped away the water that dripped from his thick hair into his eyes. Catching his breath he strained to see the shops across the street through the pouring rain. When he’d crossed from there a few minutes before the sun had been shining and he could see clearly. “Who am I kidding? Getting my hopes up, thinking it all might work out. That, I might actually solve this mystery?” Joe watched the rain wash away down the street into the gutters.
In the second example the reader is right there in the rain with Joe (Who among us hasn’t forgotten our umbrella?) You might have noticed how tripping on the curb could be seen as a metaphor for of an obstacle to his quest to solve the mystery. You should be present with him on a main street with shops and a drugstore, and you’ve learned he has thick hair. You can feel how the weather caused Joe’s change in mood and characterized him.
In Conroy’s South of Broad excerpt he writes in first person narrative, remembering fondly his first job as a paperboy. In the following brief segment he uses the setting to bring his narrative to life:
“I could lob a newspaper with either hand. When I turned left on Tradd Street, I looked like an ambitious acrobat hurling papers to my right and left as I made my way to Cooper River and the rising sun that began to finger the morning tides of the harbor, to dance along the spillways of palmetto fronds and water oaks until the street itself burst into the first flame of morning.”
Not only does he put the reader right there hurling papers from his bike, he does so with a creative and unique use of words.
Scene setting challenged me greatly. In writing my travel mystery Hera’s Revenge, I’ve had to evaluate each and every location visited on the tour. Because there are many suspects and even more destinations to visit, I’ve been able to develop sub stories for each person, using the locations to move their stories along, and to show the development of their characters. How characters react to their settings is just as important as the setting itself. It was not easy to accomplish all this, but thanks to my small critique group, if I miss the mark in putting them in the scene, I will hear about it.
Following are two examples of how I’ve used different settings in my story (these are not the actual scenes):
In my first example the tour group was visiting an ancient Greek stadium in Delphi. I used this scene by having the group sit on the stadium’s circular stone seats, while listening to their guide, Ari, tell the stadium’s history. This allowed tour leader/sleuth, Yvonne, to overhear snippets of dialogue which moved along individual sub plots, allowing readers to get closer to the characters.
In the second example I had the tour group spread out browsing several different ruins located on one large site. A secluded church ruin was just the right location for an inappropriate, yet budding relationship to move ahead. In the scene a young couple caught stealing a kiss behind crumbling walls meant conflict and unease for certain other characters. The description of the church ruin was woven into the action adding ambiance and believability to the entire scene.
It has taken a lot of writing, especially rewriting, to get the hang of this, but the effort, I believe, has been well worth it.
In closing, remember cut any scene or setting that doesn’t accomplish one or more of the following: Root a story to its specific location; Set a mood; Characterize; Move the story toward its conclusion.
Wendy Dingwall moved to the Boone area of North Carolina in July of 2001 bringing along her travel business of 12 years Canterbury Cruises & Tours, which she blended with her new business; The Book Rack, a used bookstore. When the bookstore closed in 2003, as a result of the economy, and never-ending road work in front of her store, she gained employment with a local book publishing company and found the perfect fit for her sales and organizational skills. In 2009, she launch her own publishing company under a brand dear to her heart, Canterbury House Publishing, Ltd.