Monday, February 1, 2010

Scene Structure Part I: Setting

After my series on Story Structure, I’ve decided to begin a series on Scene Structure.


shrek-scenery Every scene needs a Setting. Everything happens somewhere, where it’s on the plains of the Serengeti, the inner contours of the human brain, a derelict spacecraft, or a 2-dimensional Flatland, your Setting is a crucial piece of your story.

Some people have described Setting as the Third Main Character (after Protagonist and Antagonist). It’s a great way to create Conflict: create a setting that actively helps or hinders your Protagonist. A setting is filled with wondrous objects and activities. Divide the setting into these general categories.

  • Background – The walls, the static objects, things you can’t really interact with. Use all 5 senses to describe. What can the characters see? Smell? Hear? Touch?
  • Items – Things that can be interacted with. Doors or thresholds, weapons, cell phones, steering wheels, keys, the gun that wasn’t there five minutes ago. These can be props or doohickeys or thingamajigs, all with certain rules governing their usage.
  • Activities – What is going on? Are there people chatting? Spaceships approaching? Dragons circling? Kids playing innocently? Signs flashing dire warnings? An angry crowd forming? A volcano erupting?
  • Potential Obstacles – What in the setting could be potential pitfalls? The cop sitting by the window. The growling dog. A watering system about to turn on. Laser beams crisscrossing the room.

bad coffee FryThe more lifelike you make your Setting, the more your Characters can interact with it. Think about where you’re sitting right now as you read this. I’m in a coffee shop. Nothing much going on, but let’s make this coffee shop come alive as a Character.

  • Background – Coffee products, menus, customers, newspapers, baristas, cloudy sky, coffee smell, soft music, bathroom, trash can, tables & chairs, lighting, wi-fi, TV, territorial view of gas station/strip mall, lighting. I can describe each of these in detail, but unless this coffee shop is in every scene, I should only describe a couple.
  • Items – Laptops, newspapers, coffee cups, cell phones, doors, wallets, snacks, coffee condiments
  • Activities – Man bringing in supplies, baristas cooking, cars passing by, kids playing, people coming and going, conversations, news on the TV
  • Potential Obstacles – Hot coffee, spilled coffee, loud conversations, hostile customers, annoying kids, high prices, empty wallet, bitchy baristas, no tables, piles of trash or dirty tables, “out of” your order, order made wrong, fire alarm, occupied or broken bathroom, bad music, bad news on the TV, policemen entering for drinks, random people entering with issues, cars plowing through the window,  lights failing, espresso machine exploding, loud machinery, overpowering stenches, furniture breaking, robbery of store, customer fist fight, ringing cell phones, crying babies. You can see how an innocent coffee shop is filled with peril.

So how do we turn this coffee shop into a living, breathing character? First of all, you must start with your character’s Goal. Why is he here? Why a coffee shop? Why not a barber shop or a grocery store?  Is he here with a date? Is he flirting with the help? Is he working on an important assignment?  Is he worthless without coffee? Trying to relax after a hard day? A quick pick-me-up? A clandestine yet public meeting? Applying for a job here? Delivering supplies?

Once you know the character’s Goal, figure out what he notices about the coffee shop. If he’s in a hurry, it’s the slow service. If he has a headache, it’s the loud conversations. If he’s eyeing the barista, it’s her charm coupled with her disinterest. If he’s on his way to an interview, of course he’s going to spill the coffee on himself. Make the Setting Matter. If he’s struggling with commitment, fill it with either blissfully happy or hatefully arguing couples. Think of yourself as a god. It’s your job to create a setting that guides your characters in a certain direction, like there’s an “Unseen Hand” moving your character along. If your character is in a bad mood, the cheerful flowers mock him, they don’t soothe him. If he’s in a great mood, then the coffee is outstanding, and everyone in the room hushes in his presence.

Setting Goals

  • Reflect the character’s mood. It’s a dark place if he’s in a dark mode. It’s a flowery, glittery place if he’s feeling romantic.
  • Be there for a reason. Private Eyes don’t set up meetings in schoolyards unless somehow the children are involved. They go to back alleys or somewhere obscure.
  • Interact in an appropriate way. Coffee shops don’t have copy machines and book printers. That’s an office store.
  • Include only the items that matter to the story. Don’t tell me that the coffee shop has brochures and urns of creamer, unless the brochures tell me something important or the urns contain spoiled milk. Maybe the kids are loud, but if your character is a parent of five, the kids probably don’t bother him like they would a bachelor with little experience.
  • Use all five senses. Smells are especially evocative for readers. It’s our oldest and most powerful sense. Every scene smells like something. If I tell you “the coffee shop exploded with the aroma of bittersweet java mixed with vanilla and chocolate overtones,” that’s far more powerful than saying “they offered espresso, mocha, and flavored drinks.”
  • Focus. In Deep POV or First Person POV, focus on what the POV character experiences, and nothing more. But even in wider POV’s, it’s good to limit the description to what impresses the characters.
  • Detail. The more important a setting, the more it should be described. Conversely, if your Character is only “passing through” on his way to another setting, don’t bother with much if any description.

Non Goals

  • Don’t include every detail in nauseating exposition. Stick to a couple important points. Find the most efficient (fewest words) way to convey the scene. Endless descriptions bore the reader, and leave him struggling to figure out what’s important.
  • Don’t highlight (or even mention) items that don’t matter. Don’t describe a fabulous mug for sale unless he buys it, breaks it, or throws it at someone.
  • Don’t avoid setting altogether. Give the reader something to hold onto. “We were sitting there drinking coffee…” does not imply anything about setting. Where is “there”?
  • Don’t make the setting completely static. Unless you’re in a sensory deprivation tank, there’s always something happening. Doesn’t mean describe everything, but what are the things that impact the characters?

How has Setting affected your story? How can you use the Setting for a greater impact?


  1. Okay Running Man, such a great post. I am deep in the sh** for not doing a good setting workup for the book I am writing now. As I'm sure you know, it is so much harder to marry up all that language later, the context, the feelings, the physicality of the place. You're bound to miss something. I wish I had your list. But now I have. THANKS!!

  2. This is such good advice, I'm going to have to go over it a few times to let it fully sink in.


  3. Wonderful post. I'm about to begin revisions and reading this, I can see where my small town setting is important. I haven't utilized it as a third main character to the extent I should have. Doing so will definitely strengthen the conflict. Thanks!

  4. Detailed and so helpful - as always! Can't get over how thorough you are!

    My settings could have greater impact if I noticed them and used them. I'm a very cursory writer because I'm a cursory thinker? I gloss over details. I focus on the big picture. This is quite likely a weakness as a writer and makes plotting exceedingly difficult for me. I want to rush from Point A to Z immediately, and it's hard for me to slowly unveil and unthread. (I already know what happens!)


    Thanks for posting. This helps me see how much I overlook.


    from the desk of a writer

  5. Excellent post, good sir. Comprehensive and insightful.

  6. Great informative post - as the others always are! I think this is something I do have a lot of trouble with. I either leave it out, or they're boring. You've given me something to think about - thank you ;o)

  7. @JD: Sometimes we focus so much on the characters and the dialog and the action that we forget to put them somewhere. Think about what would the best setting be for this scene. If the setting is nice and convenient, then consider changing it to somewhere loud and distracting.

    @Ann: Thanks!

    @Jess: Small towns a rife with possibilities. Local watering holes, empty fields, the soul-sucking Walmart, tiny churches, barber shops, cottage industries, the mansion on the hill...

    @Corra: You don't want the setting to slow you down either. Just enough to set the mood and highlight what items will help/hinder your characters' goals. Just enough detail to give your reader something to latch on and get the flavor of the environment. But the more you use a particular setting, the more detail it deserves.

    @Simon: Thanks

    @Erica: Think of your setting as a character...and make the setting do something intrusive. Weather is always a fun factor. Make sure it's raining at the most inconvenient times. I still remember that it was a torrential downpour for my outdoor wedding ceremony (under a tent). And my bride was delayed because they couldn't find enough umbrellas to cover her, but I didn't know that at the time. Even in real life, the setting caused a bit of conflict when I was standing there wondering where the heck my bride was. And to this day we still talk about that downpour like it was a guest at the wedding. If it was sunny or cloudy, then we wouldn't have remembered the weather at all.


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