Writing: The Whens and Wheres of Scenes

A basic element of every scene is to clue in readers to its time and place—the when and where.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few ideas for setting up your scenes:

Be Plain

Any time you change the time and/or place of a scene, you’re creating a new scene. Some writers leave an extra space between typed scenes, but it’s still necessary to spell out exactly when and where this new interaction takes place.

Even if the same characters populate this new scene, remind your readers of this shift in time or place. Readers must keep a lot of different elements in mind as they imagine your story unfolding. Yet if they wonder when or where they are in the scene, confusion may result.

Don’t be afraid to be direct. Assert time and place right up front in the new scene. You don’t really need to be clever or obtuse about it. Just state it plainly in the scene’s opening sentence.

Be First

When I draft a scene, I sometimes will write the time/place notation at the end of that first sentence. In revision, I nearly always move the when/where to the sentence’s beginning.

Why? I don’t want readers to imagine something different and then have to reimagine what I tell them. Readers’ impressions are a key element in keeping your readers going on your story. When they must go back and modify their first impression with what you now tell them, they may either become confused or give up.

Scenes that quickly set up with time, place and characters can also help readers immerse themselves in the story. Confusion isn’t likely, as readers can be confident that they understand the set up. Whether you write it as you draft or change it in revision, placing the when/where at your opening gives readers what they need to enter or reenter that continuous fictional dream.

Orient your readers to when and where they are at the opening of each new scene.

Be Simple

As you set up your scene, avoid over describing. Unless readers are firmly set in your character’s POV, a long description may muddle their imaginations instead of painting a clear picture.

As we discussed in other posts, readers need just enough information to get going with the action. If you over describe the setting or the time period, readers become impatient. Unless your character is on stage for the very first time, write a simple description of time/place to help orient readers for the scene.

A scene which changes places but is part of the same time may not need a complete reorientation, but it doesn’t hurt to put subtle reminders into the character’s thoughts or dialogue. Readers appreciate writers who don’t make them work too hard for basic information like where and when they are in the story.

How do you set up your scenes?



About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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