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Setting the Scene Correctly

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby glorybee » Sat Feb 20, 2016 9:34 am

To start off this week’s lesson, here’s the beginning of a short story for you to read:
***
Emma sipped her cup of coffee and stared out the window. She knew it was ridiculous to wait for Will this way—he’d told her that he’d let her know when he was on the way home, and she hadn’t heard a word from him. Still…maybe he’d forgotten. So she watched, while her coffee grew cold. Her neighbor waved as he went by, obviously in a hurry to get to the city. He’d better slow down, Emma thought. Susan will be a widow if he keeps driving like that.

It appeared that Will would not be home this day, so Emma plodded wearily to the kitchen and set her cup on the counter. I should get dressed—what if someone came to the door and saw me like this? She walked to the bedroom and pulled on yesterday’s outfit. No one was home to care.

But to her surprise, just as she was brushing a small stain from her pinafore, Emma heard the familiar clop-clop of horses’ hooves. It had to be Will—and as she rushed to the door, she saw his beloved form hopping from an unfamiliar carriage. His musket was slung over his shoulder, and he dropped a bundle of furs on the dirt in front of their cabin. “Emma!” he shouted, and she ran into his arms, bonnet strings flying.

***
Were you a little bit surprised when you got to the third paragraph? If I did my job right, you probably were; this little vignette was written to illustrate the principal of setting the scene correctly.

When most people read fiction, their default setting—unless told otherwise—is to assume that what they’re about to read takes place approximately here and approximately now. At FaithWriters, even though we’re an international site, here and now usually means an English-speaking country in the 21st century. And I think that’s what most of you may have assumed as you started to read about Emma in my sample paragraphs above.

So if your setting is going to be something other than here and now, you owe it to your reader to set the scene for her, and to do it early on. Otherwise, she’ll experience that same disorientation and confusion that you did when you got to Emma’s pinafore. However, you don’t have to tell her what the setting is, as in this example:

It was March of 1853, and Emma Higgins was sitting in her Nebraska cabin, drinking coffee and waiting for her man.

What you can do, however, is to use specific words that place your story in a definite time period. Thus:

Emma sipped her coffee and stared out the window. She knew it was ridiculous to wait for Will this way—he’d told her that he’d send a letter by the quickest mail coach when he was on the way home. It would only take a week or so to get to her, and by that time, he’d be close to home. Still…maybe he’d forgotten. So she watched, while her coffee grew cold. Her neighbor waved as he went by in his carriage, obviously in a hurry to get to the city. He whipped his reluctant horses, who bucked and started. He’d better slow down, Emma thought. Susan will be a widow if he keeps driving like that.

It appeared that Will would not be home this day, so Emma plodded wearily to the kitchen and set her cup on its wooden shelf. I should get dressed—what if someone came to the door and saw me like this? She walked to the bedroom and pulled on yesterday’s brown frock and tattered woolen stockings. No one was home to care.

***
Do you see how those two paragraphs set the scene for the reader, from the second sentence on?
You’ll want to do the same thing if your story is set in any time period significantly different from now, or in any place that readers of this story might not be familiar with. If poor Emma is in a spaceship, let the readers know right away. If she’s in 1950’s America, put her in a poodle skirt. If she’s in Japan, give her some tea to drink and put her sandals by the door.

Be careful, though, that you don’t overwhelm the readers with a data dump of setting-specific details, like this:

Emma sat on a little wooden stool and sipped her coffee from a chipped china cup. Her mother had given her the cups when they headed west; this was the last one. She stared out the window of her little log cabin; the chinking was loose in a corner and she wished that Will was home to fix it. She knew it was ridiculous to wait for Will this way—he’d told her that he’d send a letter by the quickest mail coach when he was on the way home. It would only take a week or so to get to her, and by that time, he’d be close to home. But the letter hadn’t arrived. Still…maybe he’d forgotten. So she watched, while her coffee grew cold. Her neighbor waved as he went by, wearing a ten-gallon hat and worn leather chaps, obviously in a hurry to get to the city. He whipped his reluctant horses, who bucked and started. He’d better slow down, Emma thought. Susan will be a widow if he keeps driving like that.

***
That’s a bit of overkill.

A few more things to note:

1. Do more research than I did just now. I have no idea if people had muskets in the 1850s, or if there were log cabins in Nebraska that had chinking, or if mail was delivered by coach then and there. Proper research will help you to set your scene properly; lack of research will shine a bright light on your writing, but it’s not the kind of light you want—it’s flashing AMATEUR…AMATEUR…AMATEUR.

2. You might want to check out the lessons on Setting and Good Beginnings. Some of this material is touched on there, too. You can find those lessons on this indexed list.

If you have any questions on setting the scene or any comments on this lesson, I’d love to hear them.
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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby AnnaBanana » Sat Feb 20, 2016 1:17 pm

Thanks for the lesson, Jan! I definitely can use this in my next story (this week's challenge, I hope :) )
Aren't there some stories, though, where it's appropriate to surprise the reader?
Blessings,
Rachel

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby glorybee » Sat Feb 20, 2016 1:28 pm

AnnaBanana wrote:Aren't there some stories, though, where it's appropriate to surprise the reader?


Absolutely.

If your intent is to surprise the reader with an unusual setting, you'll want to do what I did in those first few paragraphs--use vague enough terms (like the neighbor 'driving by') that could apply in any setting. Don't do anything that will lead the reader astray, though--don't use a term that's specific to one time and place but wouldn't work in the other. For example, if I'd had Emma put on a pair of fuzzy slippers before plodding to the kitchen, that would definitely be playing unfair with the readers.

If you're going to surprise a reader with an unexpected setting, be sure that you have a compelling reason to do so. In the teeny story that I used as my example, there would be no such reason.

However, I've seen it done effectively when the setting was in biblical times and the reader first was led to believe the story was set in the here and now. I suppose that would inspire thoughts like, Oh, those people are just like me. But to surprise your reader with a setting just for the sake of surprising them isn't particularly original--unless that surprise has a strong connection to the takeaway of the story.

(One thing that I don't think I've ever seen, come to think of it, is a story in which readers are first led to believe that the setting is in the distant past, but it's actually in the present day. The switcheroo usually goes the other way. Hmmmm....)
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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Feb 20, 2016 1:50 pm

I find when someone does not set the scene EXTREMELY annoying as I read. I have been known to toss a book aside because of it (though there would have to be other things too). And overdoing it is almost as bad.

But as far as Ana's comment - I LOVE doing that. Have written at least a couple challenge articles where I was purposely deceptive about the setting and it was so very, VERY fun. And here's one, if you wanna see.http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level4-previous.php?id=17986

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby glorybee » Sat Feb 20, 2016 2:01 pm

Joanne, I remember that story quite well. It's an excellent example of having a compelling reason to keep the setting secret until the big reveal at the end. It's the sort of story where the reader has her aha! moment and then goes right back to read it again, to see if she can find the clues she should have picked up the first time around.

Thanks for the link!
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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby CatLin » Sat Feb 20, 2016 11:32 pm

Thanks Jan. I try to make the setting apparent from the get go. I appreciate your advice on how to be subtle. Jo, I haven't clicked on your link yet, but I think I can guess which story your linked too. The misdirection was key in that one.
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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby AnnaBanana » Sun Feb 21, 2016 10:14 am

itsjoanne wrote:
But as far as Ana's comment - I LOVE doing that. Have written at least a couple challenge articles where I was purposely deceptive about the setting and it was so very, VERY fun. And here's one, if you wanna see.http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level4-previous.php?id=17986


Thanks for the story example, Joanne. That's a great story and even though I knew the setting was a "set-up" it was still a surprise ending. By the way, my name is Rachel (Rudd) (my middle name is Anna). I used to be around the challenge quite a lot, but I'm trying to get back into the swing of things. :)

glorybee wrote:
If your intent is to surprise the reader with an unusual setting, you'll want to do what I did in those

(One thing that I don't think I've ever seen, come to think of it, is a story in which readers are first led to believe that the setting is in the distant past, but it's actually in the present day. The switcheroo usually goes the other way. Hmmmm....)


Thanks for the advice, Jan. It makes me think a lot as I write. The second thing you wrote there could be very interesting. Hmmmm....too!
Blessings,
Rachel

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby itsjoanne » Sun Feb 21, 2016 3:19 pm

AnnaBanana wrote: By the way, my name is Rachel (Rudd) (my middle name is Anna). I used to be around the challenge quite a lot, but I'm trying to get back into the swing of things. :)


I remember you, Rachel (or your name, anyway :D). Hope you CAN get back in to the challenge (me too LOL). Lots of fun.

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby Deb Porter » Sun Feb 21, 2016 7:49 pm

Welcome back, Rachel. Good to see you again.

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby AnnaBanana » Mon Feb 22, 2016 7:00 am

Awww... :thankssign
Now that my fourth child is almost five I might just have the brain power and time to write more. At least I hope so! Teaching a World Literature course has also given me a lot to work with!
Blessings,
Rachel

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby MommaClaire » Wed Feb 24, 2016 7:33 pm

I needed this lesson. Thank you, Jan!

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby yvonblake » Wed Feb 24, 2016 10:06 pm

Great lesson, Jan . . . and good examples.

I found, when researching for my historical novel, that you can't assume anything. Look up fashions (for different levels of society), items bought at a store, money used, subjects taught at school, schedule of school days/vacation, hymns sung at church, etc. The more I researched, the more things I learned and questioned - and researched more.

It doesn't take but a word here or there to apply what you've learned to your story.

Here's one scene I cut from my story - so I made it into a Challenge entry.

Tropical - http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=33171

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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby glorybee » Wed Feb 24, 2016 11:06 pm

Well done, Vonnie! As soon as I read the words "one penny" in conjunction with "general store," I could place this story pretty close in both time period and location. And you didn't have to go overboard with descriptions. Thanks for posting this link!
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Re: Setting the Scene Correctly

Postby AnnaBanana » Fri Feb 26, 2016 2:28 pm

yvonne wrote:Here's one scene I cut from my story - so I made it into a Challenge entry.

Tropical - http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=33171


Wow, what a great story and a great example of setting the scene!
Blessings,
Rachel


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