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Using Setting and Building Scenes in Creative Fiction Writing Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 15, 2011

Using Setting and Building Scenes in Creative Fiction Writing

François Camoin writes in "The Textures of Fiction," a contribution to Words Overflown by Stars, edited by David Jauss:

Fiction is little bits of action to keep us turning the page, to keep us moving through the landscape that is the point of the enterprise. The events and characters exist for the sake of the place; Madame Bovary is only there so Flaubert's rainy, muddy, depressing provincial town can come into existence...

Setting is the entirety of a story's locations and time periods, which introduce ambiance, and out of that ambiance comes a good part of the emotional message of a story. The "little bits of action" Camoin refers to happen in particular places. Every character speaks and thinks from somewhere. What those somewheres look like and sound like, what textures, tastes, and smells they contain help authors tell stories. Characters inhabit settings through their senses, and they make readers notice what they are noticing, projecting onto, or overlooking. What characters are doing and thinking—whether that takes place on a park bench, in a train compartment, on a cafeteria line, camping in the woods, sitting in a particular room at home, or working in an office cubicle—includes the objects and sensations from the place they inhabit.

In Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr writes:

Too many writers think of setting as the landscape, the description, and don't use every sense. You are told about dust, but no on chokes on it. You're told about crashing waves, but the water has no temperature; no conversation is obliterated by noise. You're told about a splintered wooden banister, but if no one snags a sleeve, it drifts through your head as meaningless flab....The splintered banister doesn't matter if it has no function in the story...

"Something happens to someone (or with someone) someplace, sometime" is the way Carr summarizes the work of fiction. Setting is woven into every scene—the writer must give readers enough sensory information to answer questions like "Where is this taking place?" "What time of day is it?" "Does the character like or dislike the place he or she inhabits?" Writers have to show readers how a place affects the story's characters, thoughts, and actions.

If the writer doesn't fully imagine the story's scene settings, readers will feel uninformed, confused, or inattentive. The writer must incorporate what the character touches and sees, hears, tastes, and smells in a scene and imagine what in the environment helps or interferes with what characters want and can do. And writers must seek out what in an environment catches or escapes their characters' attention. When a character has a reflective moment, the writer figures out how what the character takes in through the senses becomes part of the character's thinking.

Kinds of Scenes

Now that you've thought about the images you can harness for writing scenes and ways to plunge right into a scene that contains high emotion, consider that most stories have a variety of kinds of scenes that move the story forward.

In Fiction Writer's Workshop, Josip Novakovich names three kinds of scenes: (1) summary, (2) silent, and (3) big. Summary scenes and silent scenes lead up to the big scenes, the ones that use the most dialog and/or description, the ones that happen uninterrupted by the author filling in information. That information is delivered in the summary and silent scenes that precede the big scenes.

The summary scene sets up an action we can expect repeats itself over time.

For example:

She talked to her mother every Sunday evening on the dorm floor's one phone; she curled into the cement block wall, her right heel popping out of her untied Clark's desert boot, as she talked and hoped not to be overheard.

The silent scene contains a description of actions that aren't repeated ones but help move the story along. Here is another example I've written:

I am so close to him that I feel his breath moving my hair. My whole body wants to be his but we do not touch. I hear the bell of the elevator arriving at my floor. I hope he is looking at me as I walk in what I imagine is a sultry fashion through the open doors, glad I've worn the black skirt with the high slit over my calves. As I exit the elevator, I smile at a man holding the door for his office mates who are still down the hall, though I am miffed as I walk ahead to the water fountain; the man I want so desperately will have a harder time seeing me through the doors when I bend over for a sip of water, swiping my hair over my shoulder.

And the big scene, Novakovich tells us, happens when you know your characters and their conflicts and put them in harm's way (whether that's meeting the teacher who is down on them, fighting the bully, walking out on a jealous husband or giving in to intimacy with a peer at work). Here you will write, no matter what point of view you've chosen and what tense, what the action is by having the characters speak and do things in the course of the scene.

Here's a "big" scene I wrote for a short story:

The lights went up slightly, signaling the last dance. In five minutes homecoming would be over. Well. Natalie sucked in her breath. It's now or never. As the band began their rendition of Love Me Tender, she strode across the gymturned- dance floor, her heels clicking determinedly along the hardwood floor.

"Steven, this is definitely our dance," she announced to the skinny boy with more than a little dab to do him on the lock hanging heavy over his forehead. The boy she'd hoped all semester would ask her out now met her earnest gaze with a look of terror.

"I don't...can't....not a good...," he stammered, looking around as if to find someone who would agree with him.

She took hold of his hand and yanked him from the metal folding chair, spilling the cup of punch he'd put beside him on the table.

"I don't dance. I mean I can't..." his voice trailed off like the puddle spreading under the table.

Afraid if she let go of his hand he'd flee, Natalie kept her grip and tried to lead him in the waltz. He was the only boy who seemed to notice that she was alive and now that she had his hand, she wasn't going to let go. She ignored the mess on the floor, red as his cheeks had become.

"I....I....I can't," he stammered again, shuffling his foot a couple of inches forward, which turned out to be just far enough for Natalie to waltz onto it full force.

Embarrassed by her clumsiness and her forward behavior, Natalie blurted, "You keep staring at me in biology and in math! Why don't you talk to me? You can take me to a movie or something. Why don't you ask me out?"

Steven's eyelids fluttered. Waiting for an answer, Natalie noticed Brylcreem smudges on his forehead. They looked like fingerprints on her class slides.

In building scenes we learn to use direct dialogue, physical reactions, gestures, sights, smells, sounds, and thoughts. As Jerome Stern writes in Making Shapely Fiction:

When you want to make a scene in your writing, render the sensations fully so that readers cringe at the slap in the face, hear the whimper of pain, see her elbow hit the blue chair, and feel your character's rage and frustration.

Try This

Think about the story you are writing and try your hand at least one of each of the three kinds of scenes: summary, silent and big. If you have a draft of a story, look at it and decide which of your scenes is a summary scene, which a silent scene, and which a big scene. Then decide if they should be the kind of scenes you've made them. If not, convert the scenes into the appropriate kind.

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