In my previous post, we discussed the introduction of a character and how to describe them without the writing becoming boring. Now, we can come across the same problem when it comes to describing setting and a scene. I’ve discussed some of this in earlier posts, which I will link at the bottom of this one, but I wanted to touch upon another aspect and basically give you homework (which you don’t have to actually share unless you want to).
I mentioned the term ‘deductive writing’. What is that? Let’s bring Sherlock Holmes back into this. He uses deductive reasoning to come to his conclusions and solve the mysteries. Now, how do we apply this to writing?
Sherlock Holmes is very observant. That is what makes him good at what he does. Not every character will be as observant as he. If your MC is a boy-crazy girl who has only spent all her free time on the internet or watching chick flicks, she’s not going to be observant. In other words, you can’t rely on her to show the reader the setting of a scene when she walks into the room. Her eyes won’t notice the color of the walls, how many doors or windows there are, or all the food and drinks, or how everything is carefully decorated in this impressive mansion. No, her eyes will scan the people—quickly overlooking anyone who is plain, maybe noting her rivals, but absolutely pinpointing all the hot guys in the room. She’ll then get sucked into conversations, and the rest of the scene unfolds.
However, if your character has any training an Martial Arts, they will have a completely different approach the same situation. These characters are more reliable when you want to show a scene through their eyes. Now, you can have a character who has never taken any form of Martial Arts but is still observant by nature, and this character is also reliable when setting a scene, but it is only because of that character’s personality that makes him or her reliable like that.
So what am I talking about, and how does it apply to writing? Here’s the exercise I want you to do, and I’m going to show you how it’s done.
Notice how you enter a room or unfamiliar setting and the first things you look for when entering the room–
Because I am prone to terrible headaches, as I approach an unfamiliar room, my senses are already spread out looking for four things: loud noise, flashing or dizzying lights, crowded environment, and potent smell. Any one of these can trigger a headache, and I avoid such places to the best of my ability. If it cannot be avoided, I at least limit my time there to the bare minimum.
When I step into the room, due to my training in martial arts, I note every exit, windows, stairways, and balconies and whatever might be blocking me from them. Yes, I’m not necessarily counting them but making a mental note as to where they are in case they’re needed. Also, if I can’t see down the corridor at the end of the room, I make a mental projection of what might be down there in case it is important to know. I then begin to assess the crowd for any threats or unusual behavior as well as their dress—whether it be practical or not in any given circumstance.
Being a writer, I automatically read people’s faces and body language determining their possible thoughts, feelings, and motives.
As naturally introvert, I scan all the faces for someone familiar and feel the greatest relief when I recognize someone.
All this takes a few seconds while I pass through the room. Can I recount all this information to you in that moment? Unlikely. I note it immediately, but it takes time to process in my mind. It is merely instinct.
If the room has any of the elements for a headache—especially noise or crazy lights—I forgo most of my usual assessments simply because I can’t see doors or windows in the flashing lights. Instead, if I am there to meet someone, I will zero in on that person and prompt them to go outside, so we can have a conversation without shouting. Otherwise, if I’m alone—well, I’d never go to such a environment on my own, so I would just leave.
This is an example of how to measure your own assessment of a new location. Once you know how you take in new surroundings, it’s easier to introduce a new setting for your characters.
The same tactic can be applied to when you meet someone new. What is the first thing you notice about them? Is it their appearance? Their face? Eye color? Clothes? Posture? My sister has a superb memory of people. When I ask her what someone looked like, she’ll say, “He’s a bit taller than I am, has brown hair, blue eyes, square jaw, lean.” She usually links their appearance to an actor. But personally, when I look at someone, I see none of that. Instead, I notice how they carry themselves, how they present themselves. I might note their hair color and height and if they’re lean or muscular, but other than that when I meet someone, I make note of their personality and who they are rather than simply how they’d like the world to see them. Once you understand how you handle introductions with real life people, you can apply this idea to your writing.
Of course, your characters are not you, and they will notice things you probably wouldn’t notice, but it’s your job to make sure they notice what they would see such as Marcus, the ex-Marine, taking note of the guards at the ballroom; Patrick, the hacker, noticing all the technology; and Olivia, the thief, identifying the valuable pieces throughout the room.
So, how do you enter a room? And when you meet someone, what do you first notice about them?
Now, step back, communicate with your characters, and figure out what they notice when they walk into a room or when they meet someone. And they won’t notice everything, and that’s okay. Not one person can notice everything (unless you have a superhero character), but that is why we have multiple characters, and we can get a bigger picture of the scene—if necessary—through the eyes of other characters.
As promised, here are the links to the previous posts I posted discussing scene setting and description:
If you want to include in the comments a brief description of what you notice when you first walk into a room or when meeting someone for the first time, feel free to do so. It would be great to read!