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Writing to Set the Scene

Above is a painting by Monet called The Japanese Footbridge. I saw it, along with several other original Monet’s, during a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Those beautiful Impressionist paintings got me thinking about the similarities between painters and authors. Both creative pursuits are only successful if they can build a convincing scene.

Most stories have one or two main settings, plus several minor ones. The main setting can be a town, the main character’s home, school, or anyplace you can imagine. If you don’t properly introduce the reader to the stories main setting, they are left staring at a blank canvas. The minor scenes are places where your main character moves through; a restaurant, lake, bar, etc. What you do with those places is also important. Every scene in your story should serve a purpose, so treat them accordingly.

Think of the scene your writing as an Impressionist painting. It’s created using broad strokes, yet with attention to detail.

Your writing should invoke all five senses. Is the room brightly lit or dark? How does the kitchen smell? What is the main character hearing? Is the food spicy, sweet, sour? You get my drift. A real person in a real place is bombarded with sensory information. When writing, don’t go through a laundry list, but pick out important elements that you’d like your reader to experience with the character.

Then start weaving them into the story. Tell us how your main characters view the scene. What would catch his or her attention? See it through your character’s eyes, not your own. Don’t be a Renascence painter and describe every intricate detail, i.e.- down to the last feather on the cherub’s wing. That’s a sure way to get your reader to loose interest fast.

Here’s an excerpt of a scene set in a meadow: 

They had discovered Cottonwood Field on a hot day like today. She remembered it like it was yesterday. The field  had sat at the end of a wrong turn taken during a run through a county park. It was covered in tall grass and purple wildflowers. A slow moving creek meandered through the middle, weaving back and forth like a shimmering snake. It smelled of pure nature, organic and bright; a scent she could recall to this day.

She had named it for the large Cottonwood tree that stood guard in the middle of the field. It had been late June and the tree was releasing an abundance of white fluffy Cottonwood seeds, which floated through the air like summer snowflakes. The soft puffs had filled the sky and stuck to her and John’s sweaty skin. They laughed and tried to avoid becoming covered in the cotton. John leaned in close to pull off a seed that stuck to her lower lip, which led to their first kiss.

This scene is experienced through the main character, Julie. The reader is provided with enough detail so they can imagine the setting, but still leaves freedom to fill in the rest with their own imagination.

Next time you enter a new place, pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and how they make you feel. Being self aware is good exercise for creative writing.

What are your favorite scenes from a novel? What can you learn from them to use in your own writing?