Set the Scene Without Slowing the Story

I was going to move on to another topic this week, but I touched upon something in last week’s post, and I think it’s important to focus on it briefly. Last week we discussed mainly narrative description and use of body language and whether those two slow down a story, but there is another kind of description. This is the description which sets the scene or introduces a character. I’m not going to go into introduction of a character because I’ve already posted about that, which you can find here: Character Introduction.

I’ve also already discussed description in great detail in previous blog posts. You can find them in the following:

Painting Pictures With Words

Movement in Description 

However, in this post I want to focus on the question, “Does scene-setting description slow down the story?” It has the potential to do this especially if it isn’t done right or if the placement of the description is wrong. Otherwise, it adds to the story rather than taking from it. There are some things to keep in mind as you’re coming to a scene where you need to set the setting.

You don’t need to show EVERY detail of the room—only the important details. Does it matter if the walls are red, blue, or beige? If it’s not fundamentally vital to the scene or the story, then no. However, DO add little details that show more of the character, but do so in a passing way. Let’s say you have a very sentimental character that’s gone missing, and a detective steps into her room to find out more about her. It could go something like this:

Nodding to the weepy-eyed mother, Detective Blackwell stepped into the victim’s room. His gaze immediately went to all the school achievements hanging on the far wall—Best Student of the Year, Most Likely To Succeed, her high school and university graduation diplomas, and certifications in yoga, tai chi, and karate.

This Elise girl was one smart and resourceful person, and this only added more to the mystery of her disappearance, but Blackwell glanced to the other side of her room. Hanging on the wall above her desk, he noted pictures of Elise with friends while some of the pictures were of a German Shepherd.

That’s Elise’s dog Legend. He disappeared over a year ago. It was really heartbreaking for Elise,” her mother informed Blackwell when he stared at one picture of the dog and girl for too long.

And so the scene can continue. Are her walls pink? Does it really matter? Does she have teddy bears from her childhood on her bed? I don’t care. What I wanted to show was that she was accomplished but also knew how to take care of herself while at the same time she liked to have her accomplishments on display in the privacy of her room.

Now, if you’re trying to introduce a much larger scene such sa a city, a kingdom, or a world, you will need to employ other elements to show the scene without slowing it down. The key to this is, the means by which you describe the setting should be in motion. This will give the illusion of movement rather than static description. One way you can do this is by using things that move easily and without too much hinderance such as light, shadows, water, or animals. A very good example of this is actually the bird in the Assassin’s Creed trailers. They always introduce the setting by means of a hawk or an eagle or some other kind of bird. This is awesome because the flight of the bird allows you to get an overview of the situation below. Check out the first minute or so of this trailer to see what I mean:

Can you use people instead of animals to show the description? Yes, but when you’re just trying to introduce the setting in which the story takes place, I suggest not naming the character immediately because who the character is at this point isn’t important. What is important is what they see and how they interact with their environment. At the end of it, then yes, introduce the character. Again, Assassin’s Creed Unity has a good visual example of this:

Now, seeing it done in film is one thing, but translating that into writing is tricky. How do you do it? Set your mind to it, imagine the scene unfold in your mind, and just do it. Now, I will warn you, it can be a bit tedious and overbearing because you can get lost in all the beautiful description and the story won’t start until Page 20, and you don’t want that. Always know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and stay focused. Try to keep it short—no more than a few paragraphs, and don’t get distracted with unnecessary detail. Here’s an example inspired a bit from the Assassin’s Creed trailer:

The hawk flew over the wide-spread plains, over the dirt road which snaked through the fields toward the city. People traveled the road at this noon hour, running for the city with guns, knives, and pitchforks in hand. They ran with an angry shout and pure determination, but the hawk flew on.

Coming to the mighty gates of the fortress, the bird glided over the wall and over the fighting thereon. Man strove with man on the walls, at the gates, and in the streets. Shouts and gun powder filled the air,

The hawk swept down into a corridor between two buildings. Below, peasants armed with farming tools charged straight for the organized line of royal guards. The guards stood their ground with their guns aimed at the approaching mob.

Then they fired.

The hawk swooped up, away from the gunshots, away from the fighting and bloodshed. It soared up the lofty clock tower then perched itself on the outstretched arm of a hooded man who observed the fighting below but turned his eyes to the pouch attached to the hawk’s leg. Opening the pouch, he removed a rolled up piece of paper. As he turned his back on the fighting to read the message in his room behind the face of the clock, he lowered the bird onto its perch and gave it some leftover raw flesh to eat.

As you can see, using this method is a way to inform the reader of a few things:

  1. It’s set in more medieval time but with gunpowder
  2. There is unrest in the country
  3. Somebody is watching and has outside communication

So, is this the way you should always do intros to every location in your story? No. Variety is always best for your story. Switch it up, or it will become predictable, and people will skip over the paragraphs. This is merely one way to show without slowing the story, and it’s a good little trick to have up your sleeve. It takes practice to master though—as do all things in life.

If you think your description is slowing down your story, it probably is, but you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions. At that point in the story, is it okay to slow down the pace? Or does it disrupt the story? Do you, as the author, naturally skip over those descriptions? If you skip them, it’s likely your readers will too.

Writing description is tricky, but it’s a skill worth mastering. Once you discover how you write description, that is something you will never lose.

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