In the opening lines of a fictional scene, writers are often tempted to get down the setting’s every detail, because isn’t detail what makes scenes come alive? Well, yes and no.
Writing Tip for Today: While it’s true that you need to fully imagine a scene and its setting, here are some ways you can set the scene without overpowering the reader or using too many details:
Don’t Wait to Set the Scene.
Readers need to know where they are and when they are. Without these crucial elements, confusion is often the result, which can lead readers to stop reading the scene. I like to inform my readers when there is a shift in setting and/or time right away, in the opening words of the first sentence. This is the reason I object to opening a new scene with a line of dialogue that has not as of yet been attributed. The spoken words are floating out there in space, with not even a person to speak them rooted in readers’ minds. If you then give an attribution, it forces readers to reread the dialog, defeating the purpose. In the same way, diving into a scene without first anchoring it in time and place forces readers to either make up something (which may be proved wrong in the next paragraph) or imagine characters without a setting or a time. Set your scene at the very beginning of a new scene. There may be a few exceptions, but in my opinion these are few and far between.
Use a Broad Brush
If you drop a long paragraph of description about your setting into that scene opening, readers are likely not to remember much of it as they get into the action and dialogue. Instead of setting a scene like a Realtor tour, use a minimal description to set the scene. You can then remind the reader of certain details as your POV character moves through the scene. I personally avoid using lists of items in a room or clustering long sentences about the setting. Far better, in my opinion, to let the POV character interact with the setting.
Setting +Character = Emotional Connection
By using beats or sentences about the setting in and around the action/dialogue, you accomplish two things: First, readers are going to be firmly set in a particular scene. But even better, you can also use your POV character’s EMOTIONAL ATTITUDES toward the setting to illuminate both setting and character. If you set the scene at the opening but never remind readers of the whereabouts as the scene moves along, the setting will be quickly forgotten. Let your POV character remind readers that they are in a cheap saloon, a sterile operating room or digging a ditch. Characters will have different reactions to different settings. Use these reactions to not only remind readers of place, but also to develop character.