Monday, September 5, 2011

Chapter Anatomy: Scene Setting

Yesterday I brought up the topic of GMC’s and MRU’s. Put all that together and you then have scenes and sequels. I was thinking today that the topic consists of too many things to wrap a brain around. If you read it, you saw what I’m talking about. And there are so many things we already have to concern ourselves with, am I right? So let’s do this a piece at a time. I’m going to break it all down into a few posts and hopefully we’ll learn together.

So, class, let us begin.

You have a brand new shiny idea. It’s pretty. You pet it a little, give it a cutesy name. Nudge the muse and you both stare glassy-eyed at this new wonder you’ve created together.

Where to start? Scene setting.


This is super super importante. If you can’t ground the reader, they won’t follow and will stop reading the moment someone says, “I just finished the best book!” I do it all the time. I’ve run out of bookmarks and moved on to using mail to mark places. You think I’m kidding, don’ t you?

Setting can be as small as a room with a view. Expand on that room to a house or a hotel. A seedy inn. Expand on that into a desert. A city. A country bumkin town. Expand on that and you’re on Earth. Planet that-crazy-name-you-gave-it. Maybe it’s a realm. A kingdom. Whatever. You know what I’m saying.

This is all world building.

For now, though, let’s get keep to basics. Chapter anatomy. Each chapter starts a new scene. Some of you/us/them continue from previous chapters, so those don’t really count. Let’s say we’re on chapter 1. You need to set the scene.

Where are you? I’ll use my urban fantasy for examples. Chapter 1 starts like this:

I didn’t know at the time, but it was the last day my heart would beat. I stood in the driveway, kissing my fiancĂ© good-bye for what would be the last time. As far as last days went, I couldn’t have asked for better. Late in May, the sun was radiant in a bright and nearly cloudless sky, a slight breeze holding the summer humidity at bay.

From that, let’s talk about what we now know.

Sight: Clear blue sky.

Touch: Breeze, concrete under feet.

What would help that? Sound and Smell. It’s May, so it’s spring, right? I could add the smell of mowed grass or flowers on the breeze. A barbeque! The sound could come from the mower, or birds chirping. Cars passing by.

Do I have that stuff in the chapter? Nope. Should I? Hellz yes. Why shouldn’t I? The following dialogue is enough to engage the reader, at least this is what they tell me, but there’s nothing grounding them further. The more details you can add, the more engaging the scene will be. Get all four senses in there.

But here’s my suggestion. Don’t add it all into one lump paragraph. Let’s say I go back and add the other two senses I missed. That’s already a fairly decent sized paragraph, and for a day and age with a short attention span, I’ve already lost 50% of my blog post readers cuz I like to talk. A lot. And if I overwhelm the reader right off the bat, they might grow sleepy and bored, and then that friend calls with the new awesome book.

So what’s the solution?

Why not add it into your dialogue tags?! Here’s the following dialogue to my first paragraph. Now, I’m going to just slide it in somewhere. Let’s see how it turns out.

“Come with me, Natalie,” Travis whispered over my lips.

A chuckle welled from deep in my chest. “Spending a weekend with your parents at some fancy-shmancy barbeque slash retirement party isn’t my idea of an awesome time.”

“Even if you’re with the man you love?”

I jutted a chin toward the trunk of his car. “I saw the golf clubs, my friend, and I know you intend to use them.”

Travis turned his head up to laugh, the vibrations transferring to the palms of my hands. When he looked down a moment later, his midnight blue eyes shone with amusement. His hands rubbed absently up and down my arms, his callused palms chafing my softer skin.

“If you came, I wouldn’t need to use them,” he said, raising his voice now since Mr. Tucker had started his mower across the street. We were almost immediately doused in the smell of fresh cut grass on the gentle breeze.

It’s not perfect, but you get the idea.

I always fall back on what I see and touch. Remembering to add what I smell and hear can be hard. That’s why we have awesome cp’s to fall back on. Hopefully, you have a good one who notices that right away and reminds you.

So you see why setting is important now? And this can’t be just an occasional thing. Start a checklist or whatever tool of choice and write/type all the senses. Check them off for every scene. Go to a new place, start over with all the senses. Ground your reader scene after scene after scene. Add details beyond the big picture, too. Here’s a scene further into my book that, once I added in the tinier details, I find it’s one of my favorite scenes.

I slid into the booth across from Kyle whose arms stretched over the back of his seat. A smile crossed his face with ease and I noted he’d glamoured the familiar blue eye color. I wished he’d glamour the color more often than just in public. Even after all these months, the red eyes on any vampire disturbed me.

I glanced around the near empty diner. The light blue vinyl booths needed recovering and the wooden stools at the long service bar looked dangerous for anyone over fifty pounds. The napkin holders had rusted within an inch of their life.

I quirked a smile at Kyle. “This place has the great coffee? Or is this your way of luring me into dining on the waitstaff?”

He laughed, slowing to only a smile when the stumpy-legged waitress approached. Dull brown eyes bounced between us from behind heavy lids. Her grey curls looked frazzled in the humid space and a roll of skin under her chin bounced with each chomp of the light pink gum between her teeth.

“What’ll it be?” The manly voice escaping her throat came as quite a shock, but the unaffected level of tone didn’t. Her droopy eyes fell immediately to the green order pad and she scribbled something along the top. “We have great pie,” she said as if an afterthought.

I stifled a laugh and glanced at Kyle whose smile widened.

“Coffee for me,” he said. “And pie sounds fantastic. Apple. Hot.” He raised an eyebrow at me.

I shifted under his gaze and glanced up at the waitress who might as well have been doodling for all I knew. “Same,” I said. Once she was out of earshot, I narrowed my eyes. “Pie?”

Four fingers of one hand drummed over the vinyl back of his booth. “We can’t eat it, but I intend to appreciate the aroma.”

Leaning back in my booth, I sighed. I couldn’t get rid of the smile on my face for anything. My cheeks actually ached. “I used to love pie. Mom made the best pecan pie for Thanksgiving. Pumpkin, too.”

Kyle shifted forward and leaned into the table, resting his chin in one hand. “You never talk about your family.”

I shrugged a single shoulder and stared down at the silver splash of designs in the Formica table. Multiple yellowed rings stained the top. “Not much to tell.”

The key is to add the things we notice every day, but forget the moment we leave. While you’re out, wherever you are, make note of things you smell, feel, hear, and see. Taste! If you’re characters actually eat real food, they must taste things, right?

Okay class! That’s all for today. If you have anything to add, something I missed in setting scene, please share!

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