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Building the Scene

Updated: Jan 18

In our run-up to this year's NaNo, we've touched on some of the fundamentals of story telling. The three chief components are character, setting and plot. So far, in the last few weeks, we've summarized all three and played with some of the relationships between them...

To recap:

  • Reverse Logline: focused on creating a character and introducing them to the reader.

  • Compelling: created another character and how they tied in to the plot.

This week, take that character you've created (or discover a new one) and use them to make the setting real.

Before we get specific, think of the world that setting is placed. Is this the "real world" in the here-and-now? Is this set in a galaxy far, far away? Is this a historical or period piece? Knowing the general time and place will help bring the finer points into focus.

The Location Scout

Before we get too deep in the setting's details, know that the exact locations are likely going to be influenced, if not determined, by the plot. You bring the character and the overall setting, and we'll give you the plot point for today's scene. Hold this thought.

The setting should help the character shine. Not necessarily that we see them at their best, but rather, what compels a reader to follow them? What's going to reflect their interesting traits – or contrast with them? What's going to showcase their strengths or demonstrate their challenges? The setting can be a part of the plot.

Once you know what you need to happen to advance the story – the plot – imagine where that would best happen in any given scene… Or at least, "best" within the realistic circumstances of the character. You've probably been to that place, or at least seen pictures of it.

Finding the right kind of location template or example is your first step to "location scouting."

The Set Designer

Something is going to happen in your scene. If you already know, awesome! If you're still looking for inspiration, here a few potential events:

  1. Somebody falls in love

  2. Somebody falls out of love

  3. Somebody gets in an argument over [emotionally charged thing]

  4. Somebody gets in a violent fight

  5. Somebody discovers clues that a crime is about to happen

  6. Somebody discovers clues about a crime that has occurred

Whatever it is, it has to advance the plot (even if that progress is only revealing a key character detail). Quick location scouting: where does this happen?

You wouldn't realistically have two characters falling in love on the catwalk of a decrepit factory (that would certainly change the tone between Batman and the Joker). You don't normally think of murder mystery clues discovered while sipping espresso under the umbrella of a bistro… but anything is possible. Again: where does [it] happen?

Once you have the general location, you need to put in the details that give the scene texture, volume and movement. This is the role of the Set Designer. There could, even should, be ten times as many details in your head versus anything you'll share with the reader. This lets you pick and choose each narrative brush stroke that will make the place come alive in the imagination.

Think about:

  • The sounds of the environment: traffic? Crickets? The clanks and cracks of medieval battle?

  • Let the plot help: what time of day is it? How does that affect the flow of traffic through the area (even if the only traffic there is raccoons)? How does it affect the lighting? Is it a glaring noon sun or midnight blindness?

  • Does the featured character sit or lean on something? Is it soft or hard? Iron or brick or wood? Does it have cushions?

  • Does the character have something in their hands? A phone? A compass? A knife? Do they drop it? What kind of floor does it land on?

  • In the scene, what do they see that nobody else does? Why? Is it under a table or in a corner? What's on the walls? What are the walls?

Setting the Scene

Now that you've got a rough idea for a scene location, let's make it come to life. Take your character, know what they're going to do (or have done to them), and let them interact with the location.

[20 minutes]

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