Anchoring Your Characters in Their Scene

I’ve shared some of my work lately, and I’ve received a lot of feedback in return (don’t worry, it was all good). But the best compliment I received was that I knew how to effectively set a scene.

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After I thought about it, I realized that is probably the number one thing I comment on when I edit or beta read for someone (besides making notes on grammar and punctuation). I like knowing where the scene is taking place. I think describing the scene, letting the reader know where your characters are, is important. If your characters are in a restaurant, but you don’t write that they are, your characters could be eating their dinner anywhere: on a bridge, at the park, on the moon. This might not seem like a big deal until all of a sudden where they are is part of the plot. Maybe your male main character moves in for a kiss, and your female main character balks. Why would she do that? Because they are in the middle of a grocery store and she doesn’t want a foot of tongue down her throat in the meat department. This makes him angry (why is she such a prude) so they fight. You’ve written that they are grocery shopping. Everyone can picture a grocery store, so problem solved.

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What happens though is, if you don’t write where the scene is taking place close to the beginning of the scene, your readers have already guessed where your characters are, and if they can’t, your reader is going to feel disorientated because she can’t picture the scene in her head. You haven’t given her anything to work with.

This is why when you read editing how-to books, they recommend describing a character right off the bat—this way your reader doesn’t have a chance to make up her own mind as to what a character looks like. If you allow your reader to do that but then go on to describe how your characters actually look and it differs from what your reader thinks, your reader feels cheated. You don’t want to give a reader an excuse to put your book down. Ever.

But you don’t have to anchor every single scene. If your scenes take place one after the next, say you’re just flipping POV to another character, or you’re starting a new chapter and your character hasn’t moved, repeating where your character is–standing by the fireplace or sitting at the kitchen table or peering out the window, is redundant. Your readers will remember where your characters are fighting, eating, making love, whatever they’re doing. But if in one scene they’re having sex, then in the next you fast forward and they’re having date night at the movies, ah, yeah, you want to tell your readers they’re at the movies now because your readers don’t want to read about your characters having sex during “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” (Well, maybe they do, who am I to judge?)

I’m going to also assume that unless your characters are traveling across the country, or across the world, or into space, that you won’t have many settings in your novel/novella/story. And that’s fine. You don’t need to set your story in all of America to make it interesting. The story I’m writing now, for example, has three or four settings at best, and I’m half way through it.

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Here’s a quick list of when you should set a scene:

  1. When your characters are moving. If they are in the car, describe the car (the owner is a slob and has tons of fast food garbage in the back seat and the car stinks like grease). Describe what she sees out the window. How does the engine sound? Maybe the radio is on. The window is rolled down, and the character’s hair is flying in her face. If they’re taking a walk, describe the trees, are they changing colors because it’s fall? Describe the sidewalk. Cracks? Garbage along the path? You can work these details into the dialogue and narrative.
  2. When your characters are in a place they’ve never been before. This seems like a crazy thing to mention, but it’s true. If your characters are visiting a place they haven’t been to three-quarters of the way through your book, you may forget to mention where they are. Especially if the dialogue is more important than where the scene is taking place.
  3. When your characters are in a place they have been before, but things have changed. A teenage girl is mad because her mom cleaned her room. A room feels different because someone has been there when they shouldn’t have been and things are slightly out of place.
  4. When your characters are flashing back. It is really important that you describe where they are so your readers know that this is a flashback. I did this in book one of my trilogy. My characters were on a plane flying home, but I used a flashback while they thought about their vacation. I had to set the scene for each of them as they were daydreaming about different memories. I wanted to let my readers know they were thinking about their vacation while they were on the plane.
  5. When it’s important to the plot. It might not be so easy to forget to describe where your characters are if you depend on it for part of the plot. (The sun is shining in your character’s eyes while she’s driving so she hits a kid jaywalking.) But it’s best to pace your descriptions so they are already in place when you need them. (Having the sun conveniently show up to blind your character is a cop out. Have your character admire the sunny day before she climbs into her car.)

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I can explain more on how to set a scene next time. For now, my 1,000-word limit is almost up. Did I miss a time when you should set a scene? Let me know!

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One thought on “Anchoring Your Characters in Their Scene

  1. How soon in the story should a writer set the scene? Also, when should they describe the character? I struggle with too much information right off the bat and am learning to scale down. *sigh*. Great post. It will be of great help during this final rewrite.

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