You are reading along, a scene ends a new one begins and… Wait… Where am I? Who am I with? WHAT IS HAPPENING? I’m lost... Have you ever had this experience? If so, that writer was guilty of not setting the scene in their story or as I sometimes call it, not grounding the reader.
Setting the scene is a simple enough concept. It’s basically letting your reader know where they are, and who they are with, and how much time has passed since you last saw them.
Setting the scene is a simple concept, but it is also one that I see missed or mishandled a lot, probably more than any other writing technique.
I don’t think this is because writers are lazy or stupid or even uneducated. I think it’s because the writers know where they are, who they are with, and when it is now in this new scene. The problem is that the reader doesn’t, and if he has to stop and try to figure any of those things out, he is not going to be happy with his reading experience.
Having to think means reminding the reader that they are reading. You don’t want that. You want readers who are so lost in your story that they just keep reading and reading and reading and… You get the idea.
So, how to go about setting the scene in a story…
At the beginning of EVERY new scene or chapter ask yourself these questions:
- Who is the point of view character of this scene?
- What characters are present in the opening of this scene?
- Where is this scene set?
- What time of day or year, etc. is it at the beginning of this scene?
- What is the mood of this scene in the beginning?
Then look back at the scene BEFORE this scene. The very last scene the reader read.
- What from the above list has changed?
Anything that has changed from that list, you need to reintroduce to the reader in the very first sentence or at least paragraph.
Nothing has changed? I’d let them know that too. If they are reading continuously, they will probably assume they are in the same place with the same people, etc., at least as long as you don’t start with something that seems out of place for those things. But scene breaks and chapter breaks are where readers tend to stop reading to eat, talk to family, maybe brush their teeth… They walk away from your story there, and it is just good form to not make them thumb backwards in the book to remind them where they are or with, etc.
Okay, so now how about an example?
Setting the Scene in a Story, Example
Excerpt from Trust Me by Lori Devoti
(Starting with the end of the previous scene in Marie Jean’s point of view, in an earlier timeline)
She waited, suppressing the urge to scream what was truly in her mind.
Finally, he slipped the cross back into his pocket and looked up. “And until then?”
She smiled. “Until then, we wait.”
After disposing of Randall’s body, Harry cleaned up in his office. He had the tools there not only to remove the blood from his clothing and skin but also to purge the dark emotions left behind by his failure.
As you can see, setting the scene does not have to be complicated. Here I let the reader know immediately that we are in Harry’s point of view (Who) and in his office (Location). The reader also knows that this scene comes right after the scene where Randall was killed (When). The mood is set with “purge the dark emotions.”(Mood)
Setting the Scene in a Story, Example 2
In Trust Me, I have two distinct timelines. One is historical. The other is modern day. To signal this to the readers, I consistently flat out tell them when they are entering the historical timeline by using a chapter/scene lead-in.
I’ve had writers in classes that I’ve taught express concern that this was cheating.
There is no such thing as cheating in writing unless it’s plagiarism… now that is cheating and just all around slimy.
Good writing is easy to understand. Good writing gives the reader a smooth experience. Good writing pulls the reader into a world and lets them stay there. If you need a lead-in line to do that… use one.
April 14, 1835
Marie Jean was frustrated. Her family, damn them, were dying out. Rodrigue had warned her this would happen, but she hadn’t believed him. One sister’s line had completely disappeared. The last round of fevers to hit the area had finished them off.
So there you have it, questions to ask to make sure you are setting the scene in your stories and permission to cheat if you have to. Go out and ground those readers, but first a few questions for you…
Is setting the scene something you forget to do? What tricks do you use to make sure your readers are grounded and ready to keep reading with every new scene and chapter?
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.