Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Setting the Stage

A common problem I see in contest entries and pre-edited works is the lack of scenery. Characters do a lot of walking inside, walking outside, but the author gives us no detail. Sure, it's a challenge. And while many how-to books insist you need to use all five senses when writing a scene, I'm here to assure you if you can use any three in a scene, that's good enough. We all want our readers to be able to picture themselves in our stories. Give them a stage with three of the four walls, and trust them to fill in the blanks.

Take a simple segue between the living room of a house and the front porch. As your character exits, what time of day is it? Morning? Afternoon? Dusk? Night? 
What season is it? Is it cloudy? Raining? Sunny? Foggy? Snowing? 
What year is it? Contemporary? Historical? Futuristic? 
What's outside the property? Rural setting? City? 
What sounds does the character hear? Chirping birds? Heavy traffic? Crickets? Are there other people around? A plane whizzing overhead? The clip-clop of hooves? A dog barking? The rustle of leaves? Does the wind howl? Has the blizzard blanketed the world in white so that there is no sound? Can your character hear the whoosh of the waves kissing the shore? 
Does the sun bathe her face in warmth? Does the rain splash his shoes? Does the cold make your character shiver? 
Is the air heavy with the perfume of flowers? Fresh rain and spring mud? Salt and coconut oil on the beach? Garlic from the Italian restaurant across the street? The smell of burning leaves?

Yes, if you were to answer all of these questions, your book would wind up at 1000 pages. So choose a few to add to your scene. For example, using the scenario I started with, here are three entirely different options:

Cassie stepped outside onto the porch and watched the sun sink into the horizon beyond the barn. A brisk wind had kicked up while she'd prepared tonight's meal, and crimson leaves danced across the pasture. She shivered in her thin calico gown. 

Cassie stepped outside onto the porch and shielded her eyes from the morning sunlight glinting off the fresh snow. Another perfect day on the slopes waited. Once she'd cleaned up the breakfast dishes, she'd grab her skis and head to the lift before the crowds appeared for the holiday weekend.

Cassie stepped outside onto the balcony and looked down at the crowds ten stories below, beginning the daily rat race to work. The first sun had already risen, lighting the sky a pale pink and heating the temperature to wilt-worthy degrees. The second sun would be up soon, and she'd probably have to grab an air-skid to get to today's meeting on time. 

Three vastly different time periods and locales, all described in three sentences. 

So take a few sentences to set your stage in every scene. Your story and your readers will benefit!

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