I suppose it’s obvious…be specific in what your describe…use words to paint pictures…make every location special, even when a location is mundane.

Yet, difficult to put into practice. 

Some creative writing instructors stress that less is best when it comes to scene setting, and there may be some truth to this.  Overwriting – in particular, relying on adjectives and adverbs, or repeating a point to add emphasis — spoils rather than helps the writing.   In some cases, the superfluous details and writing style will prevent the reader from getting to the story.

And yet, having a style that evokes atmosphere and immediacy is crucial to the story. I think someone once likened scene setting to the ingredient that causes a cake to rise whilst baking.  No ingredient, a flat cake.  

When I read the revised version of my second novel recently, a psychological thriller set in the north of England, I felt the opening quarter had improved in many ways, allowing for atmosphere and unfolding tension – exactly what I wanted.  Later sections of the story, however, seemed to fall flat again. 

I think the key to the problem lies in the scene setting itself.  Up to now, it’s been pretty vague.  A cottage in a village (no real description).  A lake on a hill (no name).  Playing fields at the bottom of the hill (could be anywhere).

I’ve changed the cottage to an old factory converted into apartments on glass balconies.  This, I feel, will allow the atmosphere to develop.  I’m enjoying placing my central character in situations that unsettle him – for instance, when he returns to The Factory with his young son on his second day there, he thinks someone’s watching them from the top balcony.

I’ve also added names to the hill and reservoir to make them distinct.

Early days, but I’m enjoying the revision.


8 thoughts on “Being Specific In Your Writing: Scene Setting

  1. It does seem that you have found a more interesting venue (i.e. the old factory) in order to create better tension. But I wonder if there wasn’t a way to make the cottage in the village and the lake on the hill more foreboding without the specificity of a particular locale.

    In other words, was it possible to use the “less is more” concept in order to evoke a sinister atmosphere?

  2. I have often struggled with this as I tend to lean heavily on dialog, (I hear voices in my head LOL!) but seriously, scene setting is like setting the mood. It is a character in itself almost as characters play off the background, and the atmosphere. You know this as with movies the right score is playing in the background and it resonates with the audience. A good author plays a symphony in the background by way of words.
    Good Luck to you!

  3. Hi tikiman, good point. The problem, my first novel relies too much on a cottage in a village and using another cottage in the second story was making the two novels too similar. I also felt that the second story should reflect more of Lancashire in the north of England; previously, I’d set in the south east commuter belt. I wasn’t really seeing the scenery whereas now it’s becoming clearer in my mind.

    Thanks very much for commenting. I hope your writing’s going well.


  4. “old factory converted into apartments on glass balconies.” Just those few words evoked an image of old brick walls, wooden flooring and an old elevator with elaborate ironwork, add in the idea of a glass balcony being private and yet, not.
    Great post!

  5. I agree the change sounds more interesting. You discuss important points about descriptive writing that are not easy to define and require balance. Great post, Lawrence.

  6. Hi Gerardine, that’s good. I really want people to envisage -or better, still experience – The Factory in Lancashire. Thanks a lot of for your comment.

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