Mistake 33: Not Setting Your Scenes

70 Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by Bob Mayer, from The Writer’s Digest Writing Kit

Why this is a mistake: A movie or a play has a physical set for the audience to see; all a writer has to work with are words. Too many writers, because they can see their settings in their own heads, assume the reader does too, and therefore don’t bother to actually set their scenes. Or they think scene-setting is just a matter of describing
the physical environment to the reader.

You have to establish more than the main setting of the story; there are settings for each scene. Every time you move the story to a new scene, you have to orient the reader very quickly. Some authors wait too long to do this or never do it, and the reader feels like he is floating in some featureless void with the characters.

The solution:
Within the first few paragraphs of a new scene, you should orient the reader to several things:

  • Who is in the scene? Let the reader know what characters are on stage. Don’t have secret agents. Don’t have a character
  • lurking about who suddenly speaks three pages into the scene, shocking the reader.
  • Where is this scene? If it’s a new locale, give the reader a feel for the new locale. If it’s a location the reader has seen before, let the him know if anything has changed.
  • When is this in relation to the previous scene? Has there been a time lag? How much? What time of day is it? If it’s outdoors, what is the weather like? If it’s indoors, what is the lighting?
  • What point of view is the reader seeing this scene from? The POV affects how the reader views the scene.

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