According to Jordan Rosenfeld in her book Make a Scene, one of the key ingredients of any story, novel, or scene, is “a rich physical setting that calls on all the senses and enables the reader to see and enter into the world you’ve created.”
In other words, setting gives the reader a base from which to experience the scene’s action. Without this, your reader will be lost in a sea of talking heads. However, if the action gets lost in the description of the setting, i.e., you’ve given too much information all at once and stopped the action in its tracks, then this is also unsettling to a reader.
Jordan recommends that the writer assume the role of “tour guide” describing what can be and should be seen! The physical world created becomes a solid framework for the details to come, e.g., feelings and thoughts. This applies to all genre! You want your reader to be in the scene with the actors and the action. If your description doesn’t make this world real, your reader will be left standing outside looking in – a place he/she does not want to be.
How do you then analyze your settings to be sure they hit the mark? Let’s assume that you’ve a clear handle on the overall setting for your story. You may have already established the descriptions of individual scene settings in a concise manner, OR you may have them in a vague state, meaning to come back to them later. In either case now’s the time to polish or flesh them out.
The Scene-by-scene Review
First, do a non-stop reading of your story – no matter if it takes all day and night! As you read, mark the beginning and ending of each scene [see Side Bar]. Within each scene, highlight every instance of setting description (I like yellow!) – no matter how short.
Keep track of the objects and placement of furniture in each setting. Readers will notice if you move something without explanation. And, as the old saying goes, if you put a shotgun above the mantle in act 1, make sure it goes off before curtain falls at the end of the play!
You might also want to write down the location of each scene – mansion, basement, stairs, barn, apartment building rooftop, corner office, train. Navigation between locations needs to be realistic as well. (One problem with The Da Vinci Code, is that most readers familiar with Paris say that the time Brown gives his characters to traverse the city – even in a car chase – isn’t physically possible.)
Now that you’ve taken all your notes, start with the opening scene and ask yourself these questions, fleshing out or editing out what is needed to make the setting vivid and alive:
- What are the physical elements needed for this scene depending on the action, the geographical location, the season of the year, the time of day – or night?
- What are the senses used to generate the mood of time and place?
- Are the objects in the scene important to mood, action, future clues or just superfluous? Add only those props that bring a scene to life. As in dialogue, the ordinary/everyday is not needed, and in fact can overload. Draw attention only to objects that have significance in the development of plot or character.
- Be consistent – make sure your details are accurate scene to scene. If the trees lining the drive are magnolia in the first scene they appear, you can’t change them to spreading chestnuts later!
- Look at each scene setting for relevance to the overall plot. If the setting doesn’t make sense to the plot and doesn’t relate to the scenes before or after, why is it there? Unless the fact that your main character plays the piano beautifully is important to understanding him and his growth, why have a scene in the music room? Remember the game of Clue? If the murder is in the kitchen, does Col. Plum have to go through the library to get there – unless of course, he’s trying to hide?!
In the end, it is up to the writer to assess the core elements needed for a polished story. In determining the visual and sensual details needed, each scene should:
- Have an effective setting that is vivid but not overbearing.
- Reveal the time, place, and culture of the setting.
- Use objects to reveal details about plot and character.
- Engage the senses to create realism and authenticity.
 Make a Scene. Jordan E Rosenfeld. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, OH, 2008, page 6. (ISBN:978-1-58297-479-8)
 Ibid., page 270