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Setting the Scene

Have a story to share? Start by setting the scene. When does the story take place?  A thousand years ago, in modern times, the future? Where does it take place? In America? In Asia?  A foreign place that doesn’t exist. Outer space? The main thing every writer must do is describe, describe, describe.  

The best way to describe the world you are creating to your readers is through the five senses:

Sight: What is happening in the scene? Describe the shape of the houses; this lets the reader know if your character is in the suburbs or city.  The colors of the trees can indicate the time of year. The different types of animals can let the reader know which part of the world your character is in. The clothing your character is wearing can indicate the time period, wealth and even religion.

Sound:  What sounds does your character hear? The streets filled with honking horns can make the area seem crowded, birds chirping in the trees can indicate quiet, laughing and humming can mean the character is happy.

Smell: What smells are in the scene? The scent of roses can signal spring.  The smell of sour yogurt could indicate a broken fridge or person who has forgotten to throw away their trash.  Salty air could remind someone of the sea.

Touch: What happens to your characters physically?  A pat on the back can signal approval, a punch in the belly could come from a friend turned enemy.  Yet touch doesn’t simply come from humans. It can be also from animals, weather, or things. Think of brushing past a sharp corner by the teacher’s desk or how it feels to have a cat curl up on your feet.

Taste:  Taste is a great way to make a scene come alive. The spices in your main character’s favorite dish can indicate the country they live in.  Describing the taste of the butter in the popcorn takes the readers to the movies along with the character. The tears your character tastes when they cry are the same tears most readers taste when they are sad.

When describing a scene, be specific.  Avoid using words such as thing or it.  Give as much detail as you can without going overboard.

Example A:

Unclear:  The table was messy with lots of stuff left on it.
Clearer:  The table was grimy with leftover grease.
Clearest: The picnic table was covered in grime; left over from the hamburger dinner they enjoyed the night before.

Example B:

Unclear: He came in wet.
Clearer: He came into the room wet, something dripping on the floor.
Clearest:  He came into the room shivering with his raincoat dripping a puddle on the floor.

The trick isn’t always to add more words, but to make them as clear as possible. Sometimes it will mean adding words, other times it will mean taking them away.  Learning to describe what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell takes practice. The more you do it, the better you become.

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