Have you ever read a story and had trouble visualizing where it took place? Did you ever skip a paragraph because it was just description and you didn’t care enough to read it? As a writer, you must walk the fine line between setting the scene for your reader and giving too much detail.
This three-part exercise is to help you learn what details about your setting are essential to share and how to seamlessly work them into your story.
Part 1: Observation
- Go outside. Close your eyes. What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you smell?
- Now open your eyes. What do you see? Walk around. Is the terrain uneven or level? Touch a tree, the grass, the side of a building. What is the texture like?
- Now shout. Whisper. Speak at your normal volume. Sing. Does your voice echo or disappear?
- Write down your observations. Try to write a minimum of three for each sense.
Part 2: Write a Scene
- Write a short scene that takes place in the location you observed in Part 1. Use sensory details to describe the setting. Be careful to work the details into your story instead of dumping them on the reader in one or two description paragraphs. If someone wanted to read paragraphs about trees, they’d study forestry.
Example of a well-set scene:
Stephany walked onto the front porch and looked across the street to where Mrs. McGuire was putting her flower beds to rest for winter. A gentle breeze chased dried leaves across the sidewalk and played with the stray wisps of hair that had escaped Stephany’s messy bun. She wrapped her hands around her mug and smiled. As she sipped her coffee, the delicious steam warmed her nose.
(The action begins in the next paragraph.)
In that paragraph, the reader has been given basic information about the neighborhood, time of year, and even a little about Mrs. McGuire and Stephany. The reader can picture where he/she is and is ready for the action to begin.
Part 3: Use the Setting to Enhance the Mood
- Choose a problem for a story.
- Write three crucial scenes in the location you observed. Use the details you share about the setting to help set the mood for each scene.
- Beginning: introduce key characters and the baseline for their lives
- Middle: the problem has been introduced and the protagonist is dealing with it
- End: how it ends and how the characters have changed
Problem – The protagonist’s spouse is cheating on him/her.
Beginning – The protagonist doesn’t know his/her spouse is having an affair. The weather is good, and I only mention beautiful or pleasing things about the setting.
Middle – The protagonist knows about the affair and is trying to decide whether to ignore it or confront his/her spouse. I draw the reader’s attention to things that need fixing or to weeds in the yard or flower beds. The sky is cloudy.
End – The protagonist has just signed the divorce papers and is moving out of the house. It is cool and partly cloudy. The house is barely mentioned, and when it is, the stated features are either imperfect ones or ones that make the protagonist feel nostalgic. The focus is on the road, especially the point where trees block the protagonist’s view of it.
*Remember, this is an exercise. You do not need to write the entire story unless you want to.