Setting the Scene

Have you ever walked into the middle of a joke?  You know, two people are talking and you walk in on it.  One person is telling the other a funny story or a joke.  The punch line comes and the listener laughs and laughs, but you just don’t get it.

If you miss the set-up, you can’t appreciate the funny.

Have you ever walked into the middle of a scene and just started your story?  You know, you tell your readers what happened.  You give them the blow-by-blow.  But your reader walks away, saying, “So what?”

If you miss the set-up, you can’t appreciate the story, either.

Sure, there’s a lot of advice out there about jumping as deep into a scene as you can.  It ramps up the pace and keeps things moving.  But sometimes, if you do that too much or cut it too deep, you end up moving so fast you pass your clueless readers right by.

Setting a scene isn’t just about the space your characters are in.  It includes relationships, feelings, and histories.  What about these characters makes this scene important?  What about this space makes this scene important?  Without the backdrop, the background, and the backstory, you’re story has no depth, and sometimes it has no meaning.

Think about television.  Have you ever gotten sucked into a new episode of a television show you used to watch?  Sometimes, especially with shallower shows, you can simply enjoy it without caring about what happened in the episodes you’ve missed.  Often, however, the moments created on the screen assume you know what happened before them.  And that’s fine, to a certain degree, for serialized fiction.

But every scene has a set-up.  You have to give your readers enough of the set-up that they can appreciate the scene, but not so much that it bogs the scene down.  This isn’t just for the beginning of your story, either.  Every scene has a set-up.  For every scene, there is significance in the backdrop, the background, or the backstory.  If not, then all you have is a shallow event that could be anybody, anywhere.  And what’s the point of that?

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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4 Responses to Setting the Scene

  1. acflory says:

    In classical literature, the setup could take chapters because the readers expected the pace to be slow. These days we’re all in thrall to the 30 second sound bite mentality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t setup the scene. It just means we have to be sneaky about it.

    Foreshadowing is more important than ever before. Build up is more important than ever before. And if we get it right, the reader will be primed by the time the Big Scene comes along. It can then be as fast and sharp and biting as we want because the reader is already prepared for it.

    Of course, the devil is always in the details isn’t it?

    As a sci-fi writer I have an awful lot of setup to do, and I have to do it without boring the socks off my readers in the process. I’m slowly learning to make every sentence ‘dense’ with layers of meaning and information. It should contain a tiny bit of environment, a tiny bit of character arc, a tiny bit of foreshadowing etc, all woven into the purpose of the moment.

    If I get it right, my reader will absorb these tiny bits of information without being aware of it because the focus will be on something that keeps the plot moving. Yet, again if I get it right, all those tiny bits will add up over time, and pages, to prepare the ground for that Big Scene. I hope.

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