5 Steps to Setting the Scene in a Novel or Story

Setting the Scene: Writing Wednesday

Setting is an important part of any story, but setting the scene can be even more important.

This week I thought I’d try something a bit different and give you my blog on the process of writing in video form!

Setting the Scene Key Points:

1. Know your characters. Be conscious of your characters’ personality traits and whether their actions in a scene are in line with their prior actions. If your character does something totally out of character, it can still work if there’s a reason for it. However, often times this can make the reader stumble. As a general rule, it’s usually good to make sure your characters act within predefined roles, even if those roles are kept secret from the reader. Hiding a character’s motives can make a character have depth, as long as the author, you, knows where the character’s true intentions lie.

2. Don’t waste time. Jump right into the action. There is such a thing as boring your reader to death. Some types of back story are great for the reader and really help with setting the scene, especially in epic fantasy stories and novels with a rich history. However, there’s a point where the reader just wants something to happen. Be cognizant of this while you’re writing and you’ll be doing your reader a service.

3. The first appearance. The first time any character is introduced is when you want to spend the most time describing it. At the end of the scene, you want your reader to come away with a picture in their head. Otherwise, when you reintroduce that character later on, your reader might be confused. Setting the scene from the get-go is important, and getting the initial description down is critical.

4. Setting. Going along with the first appearance, it’s also crucial to describe a place appropriately the first time a reader sees it. While it is recommended that enough description be given to give the reader a picture in their head, there’s something to be said for writing in a concise way. I say this because then every reader will be able to morph the words in their head and create their own picture, as long as you give them enough to go on. Some places are more important than others as far as description goes. If you’re never going to come back to a place, you probably want to get all of your description out at once. If you do plan on going there again, you might be able to get the basics out of the way the first time, and then add more nuances later on. This way, every time a reader sees the place they don’t get the same description, but something more in depth. Don’t play all of your cards at once.

5. The Senses. For me, it’s easier to add these details in later. Otherwise, one week I could be heavily focused on smell and another on taste. Instead, I like to save an entire read-through when I’m on my second draft for adding in different sensory details. This way I can make sure to get a fairly even assortment and avoid becoming repetitive. However, if it works within the confines of the scene and you can see during your rough draft that it will add something to the scene, go for it. Writing is not an exact science. If it were, reading would be very dull. That said, I hear at the dead center of every romance novel is a sex scene. If true, it must be a good formula because romance is the most popular genre in eBook form. I wonder if the readers know it’s formulaic? Thoughts?


If you found this video and blog post helpful, please subscribe to my channel and share with your friends. More videos and blogs coming soon!

Subscribe on Youtube
Follow on Twitter

A 4-Step Guide To World Building: Not Just For Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors

World Building has long been associated with thousand-page epic fantasy novels and off-world sci-fi books in which the setting and rules of that world directly affect what happens in the story and why it happens. I’m here to tell you that world building does not just have to be for sci-fi/fantasy novels. I’m going to present you with a few reasons you might want to take a second look at the practice regardless of your genre of choosing.

Many assume that world building exists because the author wants to set their fictional world apart from the world we live in, and for the most part, they would be right. However, I’m going to argue that world building exists to set up expectations for the reader. The human mind loves to make patterns, and putting everything into their own sorted boxes is not just for the OCD among us. Humans subconsciously do this all the time whether they admit to it or not. The practice of world building, in my option, exists to feed into the reader’s subconscious desire to categorize everything, only to shatter those expectations at a later time. Notice that I haven’t mentioned sci-fi or fantasy at all in my description, which will come into play later. Getting too heady for you yet? Let’s break it down into a few steps that will get you started.

World Building in 4 Steps:

1. Fysiks (Not just for Newton)
Generally speaking, the concept of physics from world to world varies only minimally between novels because most of us have a notion that there is gravity on Earth and differing amounts on other planets/planetoids/moons and none at all in outer space. This goes beyond gravity, but it’s important that if you’re going to mess with this whole physics thing, you should do it early in your novel. Nothing will throw off a reader more than finding out halfway through a novel that all of the previous action took place in half gravity. Can you have a different set of physics in a non-sci-fi/fantasy world? Maybe. What if one of your characters believes physics acts differently for him than for everyone else. Maybe he has a psychological disorder. Does the reader know he’s crazy? What if it was from the perspective of the delusional man? Is he actually delusional, or is everyone else crazy? Something to think about.

2. Back Story
This is definitely something that applies to stories outside the sci-fi/fantasy realm. In your novel, are historical events exactly as they happened in the real world, where your fictional characters fit in precisely somehow, or is something different? If you’re going to create alternate histories or detailed back stories for your characters I have a few suggestions that could help. As a reader, I find long descriptions that last for pages talking about someone’s ancestry boring. I just don’t have that kind of attention span. What I suggest is that you introduce a few factoids early that introduce this history as it relates to your character, and then keep putting in bits and pieces as you go along that add depth to your character. One of my favorite things to do is to give a reader very little information about a character upfront, such that they form their own opinion about that character. Then, as I introduce more information about that character, the reader starts to realize that their initial opinions were dreadfully wrong. Maybe that good guy isn’t so good. Maybe that bad guy isn’t so bad. Or, maybe that rogue is exactly what you initially thought and they can seldom be trusted. The point is that every novel needs a history, a back story, somewhere. How you implement it is key. I’m a fan of sprinkling details throughout the novel to add depth at the least expected times.

3. Rule Systems
This extends beyond the systems of magic, power, and more that you might find in a sci-fi/fantasy novel. In those types of novels, it’s important to show that certain characters hold certain levels of power or influence, especially early on, because then your reader knows what to expect going forward. For instance, in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, what is the first thing Darth Vader does? He kills a guy. He uses the Force to strangle someone who displeased him. This set him up as a powerful villain who possesses some kind of supernatural powers. Even though he doesn’t do a whole lot until much later in the series and we don’t yet understand what he was able to do with his powers, we as viewers still see him as dangerous and evil. But now I’m going down the sci-fi rabbit hole. I digress…

Rule systems don’t have to be just for sci-fi/fantasy. Let me give you an example. What if your novel took place in a concentration camp during World War II. There are certainly lots of rules there, right? The commander of that camp could be introduced as evil, or perhaps even likable but in an unfortunate situation. The guards could enforce certain rules early on that give your characters reason to be afraid. In each of these situations, it’s important to set it up early. If it were me, I would set up my readers’ expectations in the first three chapters or so. That way, they know what to expect and I will have them in my clutches.

4. You’ve got me, what now?
So, you’ve set up your reader’s expectations, defined the physics, back stories, and rule systems for your world, now what do you do? This is when you exercise every sadistic muscle in your body. If you’ve done your job correctly, your reader will manifest these expectations with little argument, after all, they want to put everything in little boxes. However, not many books ‘make it’ that don’t shatter these expectations in some way. This doesn’t have to be done by killing off a beloved character, but there are times when this could certainly help. What does have to happen is a moment in the book that makes the reader stop, backtrack a few sentences, and read again. If you make your reader stumble because you’ve added a surprise twist or shattered their expectations in some way, you’re doing your readers a service. Readers will remember your work, if only for that moment, and that is half the battle in this sea of new authors.

For some examples of World Building, I suggest you check out The Azure Key, the first in my science fiction series The Corsair Uprising! It’s just 99 cents!

How about it gang? What are your thoughts on world building, expectations, and Earth-shattering revelations? Leave a comment below and your argument could be addressed in a future post!

UPDATE (4/3/2015): Read Devan Stormont’s article that uses my steps listed above and applies them to writing code. When World’s Collide: How Writing Fiction Intersects with Writing Code. Note: Devan is the creator of the popular app Weather Route, who I interviewed in an earlier post.

Don’t Stop The Flow: 4 Tips For Writing The Guts Before The Skin

Don’t Stop the Flow

Don’t Stop Innovating.

I’m not one of those writers who agonizes over every detail as they go through a book, producing a book only every year or two at most. I’ve developed a system that works for me, and might be able to work for you, to get you through those sluggish times so you can actually produce a novel and do so within a time frame that works for you. Here’s 4 tips for writing the guts of a novel before you stretch the skin over the top.

1. Write Dialogue First. By this, I don’t mean writing just the dialogue, I mean writing just enough stage direction so when you go back through, the scene is still in your head. I might start a chapter with a few paragraphs of text and then jump into dialogue between two or more characters, which could go on for pages. Why? For me, it’s easier to see the scene if I have dialogue that flows. What I find happens when I struggle over the details in mid-thought-stream is the dialogue becomes choppy and unnatural. I want to write the conversation as though I’m hearing it in my head as it’s happening. Once that’s accomplished, it’s time to head to the second step.
2. What Are They Doing? When I go back through, usually the same day, I start describing the things the characters are doing while they are talking, or the intonation they use when they speak. I find it’s important to give the reader enough to go on that they could see the scene as though it were a movie. That said, I find myself leaving a lot of things up to the reader. The reason is because when someone reads a text that might be a little vague, their mind fills in the blanks. I do this because then each reader has their own vision of events in their head and it makes the story more personal for them. Some things are important to describe outright, like a character’s physical appearance or a pivotal scene. Physical appearance is also something I add during this stage.
3. The Five Senses. One of the later things I add is the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. These things bring the scene to life and make it easier for the reader to be transported to the world you’ve created. I add it later than the rest because I don’t want to continuously use one sense over and over and I find it easier to insert later rather than remember as I go through.
4. Nuance. There’s a fourth thing that a lot of writers seem to forget, and that’s nuance. This is where I put in character quirks, the things that make that character who they are. Maybe a character has a dark past and he’s constantly remembering the things he’s done. Maybe a character drinks or smokes too much or is concerned about their weight. Looking back on a story I find I have a better perspective into where these small mentions need to be inserted to have the best effect given what’s happening in the story. You don’t want these small quirks to become too common or it will annoy the reader. For instance, mentioning that a character is from a certain town fifteen times in a novel is probably too many, but one to three times might be reasonable. The key here is that if you look at your completed story as a whole, you can understand where these words and phrases need to go.
The overall writing process for me is more like a 3D printer than anything else. I continue to add layer after layer until adding more wouldn’t add to the story or plays out a story I want to address later (in the case of a series). Is this way right for everyone? Definitely not. I doubt it’s even right for a lot of people. It is, however, right for my brain, which craves closure. By finishing my rough draft of a novel rather quickly (in about a month to a month and a half), I can go back over each chapter, using the notes I made as I went along, and know that I’m on track. It feels infinitely better to me to know that I have a novel-length work completed and I’m only editing it rather than struggling to make it through to the end. Writing is a psychological activity. It doesn’t come easily to most people. Getting in the right frame of mind can mean the difference between publishing or shelving a work.
The bottom line: Don’t Stop The Flow. Don’t stop writing. Write every day, even if it’s only a page or a lonely paragraph. You’ll find there’s time to agonize over the details later.
How does my way of writing compare to your way? Sound off in the comments below, I’d love to hear about it. For making it this far, feel free to download one of my short stories, my gift to you.