Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Set Your Scene

When I went to the ACFW conference, I had an editor meeting. I'd heard that particular editor liked scenes to be fleshed out at the beginning. Because of what I'd heard, I gave her my prologue to read instead of my first chapter.

Sure enough, the first thing she said was that she liked how I'd set the scene rather than jumping into action.

This isn't to say we shouldn't start with action. We should almost always start with action that's appropriate for the genre.

But before you jump into the action, set your scene.

Orient the reader. Give them a visual of where the character is. This definitely doesn't need to be a paragraph-long thing. A few sentences often are fine.

Every new scene needs to be set somehow, and early on. Do you set your scenes? Does too much description in a book bother you? Or do you like heavy description?

47 comments:

Tabitha Bird said...

Too much description in abook bothers me for sure. I think scene setting is very important. I'd argue that it could be done by the end of the first few pages. Maybe not straight off the bat, but get it in there before the end of chapter one.

Katie Ganshert said...

I totally agree. I like to be grounded in a scene. And I also agree that it can be done in a sentence or two. I'm not a fan of long descriptions.

Great post, Jessica!

Jessica said...

Me either, Katie. I'm not visual so this is a hard thing for me to do, and harder for me to read. LOL Can you say skip??


Hey Tabitha,
I agree. It could even be a paragraph on page one. The reader just needs something to hang onto, and often our imaginations fill in the blanks.

Terri Tiffany said...

I finally started doing this on my last two books. I like knowing briefly where the character is so I'm not second guessing until I know. Good post!

Robyn Campbell said...

I made the mistake of jumping into the action when I started SEVENTY TWO HOURS. A very astute editor told me to introduce the characters first. The MG audience needed a reason to care about Anna and Claire. It made for much better reading, after I wisely took her advice.

Such a good post. =)

Gwen Stewart said...

I gotta admit, Jessica, I'm a dialogue-action sort of gal. :) I don't write heavy description and don't love to read it. BUT, I do like sensory details sprinkled in. I don't need paras of descriptions of the steaming tea or the color of the curtains, but I totally agree with the editor: just a few select details really root me in place.

Great post. Got me thinking this AM! God bless you today.

Jessica said...

Thanks for the blessing Gwen. My body is fighting off something, so I could use some supernatural strength. :-)
I'm with you in that I don't really need a lot of descriptive, although, if the prose is beautiful, then I like to read it for the words themselves. Otherwise, like you said, select details make the scene stronger.

Jessica said...

Hi Robyn,
That's so interesting. What a nice editor to help out like that. I always want to jump into action, but you make a very good point about knowing the characters first.

Terri, how funny about you second-guessing! LOL One thing I'm always second-guessing are the days. I get my chronology all mixed up.

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

I like clever description. I don't really care if it's long or short as long as it has me engaged, saying audible, "ohs and ahs."

I've heard such mixed thoughts on this...jump right into action. No, set the scene. I think it must depend?

~ Wendy

anita said...

Great post, Jessie! Personally, I LOVE descriptions; that's in part due to the fact that I read / write fantasy and it often lends itself to more lush descriptions than other genres.

As for setting the scene: especially in the beginning of the story, it's better if you layer the descriptions with the action; almost like a play by play as your MC is moving / feeling their way through the action. Give us glimpses of what they're seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, etc...

Then by the time your character is full into the action, the scene has been set without it being an info dump. It feels more natural that way.

Jessica said...

Wendy, it probably depends a lot on genre. Romantic suspense would probably use less scene details than literary fiction. But it also depends on the scene itself, and what you're trying to accomplish with it and also what the mood of the scene is.

Exactly Anita! You said it better than me. :-) Wanna do a post on it? *grin*

Jeanette Levellie said...

Great post, Jessie. Makes me realize I need to reasearch before an editor meeting.

I get bogged down when an author has a lot of description, but I enjoy a few sentences of scene setting.

In my own books, I use dialogue more than description.

Jessica said...

Hey Jeanette,
I can't wait to read your book!
:-) I was actually lucky that a writer friend shared this info (maybe Katie?) Sometimes it's hard to find information on what editors like.

Tamika: said...

I weaved my setting in during the first chapter, without really knowing that was a plus. It seemed relevant for the action taking place for the place to be identified.

Jessica said...

Good for you Tamika!

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I like to be captured right from the beginning with action as long as the action has some info on who, what, where, why and how this came to be. I don't like lengthy descriptions and will put down a book that goes on for pages, especially in the beginning. I like enough description that will allow my imagination to picture the scene and characters.

Jill Kemerer said...

This is an area I've improved on, big time! Very important!

Angie Muresan said...

I prefer reading literary fiction and that has more description. When writing, however, I do both. Wonderful post, Jessica.

Jody Hedlund said...

I've learned that sometimes I get moving so fast into the action that I forget to ground the reader. I've been learning to try to hint at the setting as I go. A tricky balance to get enough, but not overdo!

Natalie said...

Heavy description is a huge turnoff for me, but I do like enough initial description so I know where I am in the story.

Patti said...

I don't like a lot of description. I think scenes can be set in just a few lines.

Linda Glaz said...

You make a good point about genre, Jess. I have been ripped for not jumping right into action, though I do make sure and have the scene set, but since it's suspense, I usually do it along with the action.

Jessie Oliveros said...

It took me 5 beginnings, but I finally wrote one that works for my book and it does set the scene. So yea! I did it right.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I confess, I do skip over a lot of descritpion when reading. I find I'm kind of thin on description in my own writing as a result. But it's something I need to work on a bit more. If I could, I'd have my characters conduct all their scenes in a box. LOL! Not good.

Jessica said...

That's called perseverance, Jessie! Very awesome of you. :-)

Linda, who ripped you? LOL Everyone has their style and even when you set the scene, there's still a suspense feel.

Patti, I completely agree.

T. Anne said...

Too much description in books does bother me. I've been guilty of this and desperately need to inoculate myself from this practice. I've heard too much introspection isn't good either. Looks like I'm in big trouble. ;)

Jessica said...

Donna, I don't even know if I've read a book with tons of description for a long, long time. There's a bestselling author who I never read because he's SO detailed that I just get lost.

Jill, it's wonderful you've improved. :-)

Angie, you enjoy literary fiction? *grin* Most plots make me so sad, but I LOVE literary writing. It's beautiful and if the description is lovely, I'll read just for that.

Jessica said...

Jody, you're right. It is a tricky balance, for sure. Grounding the reader, that's a good phrase I'd forgotten.

Me too, Natalie.

Jennifer, your book seemed great to me. If there's a line or two and everything is balanced, then I think the reader mentally fills in the blanks and doesn't even notice.

Jessica said...

LOL T. Anne! Introspection can be a real killer. I guess you just have to figure out what best suits the tone and purpose of your scenes. :-)

Erica Vetsch said...

I had to smile. My copy editor pointed out how, in my last book, I was opening my scenes all the same way, with some reference to how much time had passed since the last scene.

The next day...
An hour later...
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Oy!

Funny how I couldn't see it at all in my own edits, but once he pointed it out, it was hilarious.

I like a bit of scene setting, but obviously, a little goes a long way!

Elana Johnson said...

This is just a prime example of how subjective writing/editing/reading is. I don't mind action or description. I'll go with an author if they can use their words to enchant me.

quixotic said...

I think there has to be a balance between scene setting and action. You have to give a reader a reason to care about where the character is, right?

Great topic !

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

While I like to "see" where the characters and action take place, I get bored with excessive setting.

Authors who set their scenes in the midst of action or dialogue hold my interest. If I come to a solid block of setting, I tend to skim over it. It's like looking at a stage with scenery minus the actors.

Blessings,
Susan :)

Nancy J. Parra said...

I like to start with a single thought in the hero/heroine's head. Then orient them for a few sentences. This draws the reader in and gives the illusion of action. :)

Cheers, Nance

Julie Dao said...

Great advice! I love description, for my part, and sometimes I go overboard. But I think scene setting is an absolute must. As a reader I love to know where I "am."

patti said...

I LOVE to have the scene nailed down b/c I'm more of a visual person. But every reader takes a different approach. Makes it a challenge, doesn't it????

Patti

Jessica said...

Yep, a challenge is right. I love hearing everyone's take on this!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I try to. I love descriptions! That's my favorite part to write!

Anissa said...

I've gone back and forth on this in my current WIP. It starts with action, and has gotten great feedback, but part of me want to introduce the scene (and character) a bit first. Nice post!

Steena Holmes said...

I've been struggling with this exact concept right now for my first page. AUGH. You should see the added grey hair I have now!

Oh - and I just awarded you for an award on my blog :)

Pen Pen said...

I go off a deep end with descriptions and always have to go back and cut lots of stuff out. I get all caught up in metaphors and the like.
I don't like too much-like 'Moby Dick'-that had too much...I remember reading a 2 page description of a wooden bench with carvings...but I also think that description can mystify a reader and make them long to be in a scene and such.

..now I've gone off on a tangent...
back on track!
I do think scenes HAVE to be fully formed. I encountered problems with short stories where I felt like I was standing in a room with characters, but there were giant holes all around me because of the lack of description. I don't like that. I need to be able to see the settings in my head, and place the characters within the setting like chess pieces or I get confused! :)

Linda Lee Foltz said...

Every good work needs just the right amount of description and conflict and action and dialog and narrative and backstory - and it all needs to be placed correctly. It's so basic and logical, writing 101, right? So, then, why are there times when it's so hard? Linda

Dara said...

I like to be grounded in the world. Sometimes it's hard for me though to balance putting enough description or too much. Early on in my critique group(and this was only like two years ago) I was told I had too much purple prose. :P Now I'm afraid I've gone the complete opposite and need to find a happy medium.

Stephanie Faris said...

Too much description definitely bothers me. There's a line. I think it's important to work the descriptions in with the action...gradually revealing things, rather than throwing three pages in at the beginning of how the trees are blowing in the wind and how blue the sky is.

Jessica said...

Thanks Anissa! I hope you find the right balance that works for you and your readers. :-)

Steena, is it possible to have mental gray hairs? 'Cause I'm feeling you on that. Thanks for the award! I'm heading over.

Penny, I know what you mean! I don't need tons of description, but I do like to know where the conversation is taking place. LOL At the same time, I'm guilty of not fleshing out my scenes enough.

Jessica said...

Linda, LOL! I have no clue. Maybe because it's part craft and part art? *sigh*
Thanks for stopping by my blog. :-)

Dara, I did the same thing with going an opposite direction. Don't worry, the more you write the more likely you'll find the style that best suits your voice. :-)

Haahaaa! Stephanie, you're right, of course. That last line cracked me up though!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

I find this really interesting, Jessica. I'd heard to grab the reader with action while giving tidbits to set the scene. I don't mind a little scene setting upfront, but more than a line or two and I'm onto the next book. I guess I'm too impatient!:(