Scene descriptions. Ugh. This is probably the least favorite part of writing for me. It bogs me down for some reason. I prefer to get my characters talking and acting and could care less if they're doing it in a blank void. Setting the stage for my story is my biggest weakness, so I've learned to pay extra attention to it. In fact, for a long time I wrote my setting descriptions separately from the rest of my work. It was the only way to make sure I'd plug it in somewhere appropriate and not leave my characters roaming around in a gray, nondescript world. I'm getting better at it. In fact, some reviews of my work have specifically praised the detail of my settings. Who'd have thunk? But I still don't like it.
So how do you get a reluctant writer to stop whining about how much she hates describing the scenery and get on with it already? Well, if you checked out the Building Characters clinic a few weeks back, you know I work best with a highly organized list. It's no different with my settings. So uncross your eyes and get ready for another obsessively detailed way to make sure your worlds come alive on the page.
This week's example comes from Alien Conquest (Clans of Kalquor 3). We’ll work with the opening scene.
First, I think about the general location of the scene I'm currently writing. We're on Jupiter's moon Europa in the distant future, where an isolated convent huddles under a containment dome. Yes, a convent with nuns. But that's not important right now.
Next, I determine the specific place the scene is happening. Alien Conquest starts off in a ventilation shaft, located in the dormitory where the nuns and aspirants sleep. The shaft is metal and large enough to allow the heroine Cassidy to crawl into it. There she read works definitely not on the Mother Superior's list of approved books. The Kama Sutra, anyone?
And what's the best time of day to read racy stuff? Nighttime, of course. The side of Europa that the convent is parked on is always dark however, so we're in the early part of the convent's scheduled sleeping hours.
I like to look at the lighting situation. Obviously, if we're on Europa's dark side during the convent's sleeping hours, there is precious little illumination. Cassidy's copy of The Kama Sutra is an electronic file displayed on her illuminated reader. It's a bright spot of light in an otherwise shadowed environment. So you can now imagine Cassidy lying on her stomach, her wide-eyed expression lit by her reader as darkness pools around her. The silvery walls of the vent send off a slight glare where the brightest illumination hits.
So far we're dealing with the first of the five senses, sight. While we're having a look around, let's list all our props. We already know about the reader. What else do we need to see? Well, there's Cassidy herself, though I don't count her as a prop. But her stiff, long-sleeved billowing nightgown is a prop, as are her modest cotton panties. So is the cache of sweet and salty treats she's got hidden in the vent with her. With these items in our sight, we're developing a clear picture of where we are.
So that's it, and the job is done, right? I wish. No, you want your reader in the vent with Cassidy, experiencing what's going on right along with her. So we've got to engage those other four senses.
Let's go with sound next. What does one hear in the middle of a sleeping convent in a private hideaway? In this case, there's the whispering motion of Cassidy's long hair and the crinkle of her nightgown when she shifts position. There's her own soft breath, growing a little quicker as she looks at the naughty pictures of men and women coupling. And don't forget the sounds of chewing and swallowing as she nibbles on a chocolate.
Smell comes next. The soap Cassidy used to bathe earlier today still perfumes her skin. The dark, satisfying scent of the chocolate she's nibbling on. The slightly salty aroma of her arousal as she wonders what it would be like to lie with men as depicted in her book.
Touch is the last of the must-have senses. The hard metal surface of the vent's tight confines might be claustrophobic to some, but for Cassidy it's a cramped yet comforting shelter, safe as a mother's womb. The starchy, stiff nightgown is uncomfortable however, even irritating. Her hair is soft against her face. And when she touches herself after a little while, she finds a pleasant melting sensation that is both sin and salvation.
Taste won't always show up, but if you can include it, do so. For this scene, taste is easy. Cassidy is eating chocolate, rolling the sweetness around on her tongue, savoring one of the few joys left in her life. In scenes where there's nothing in the character's mouth, try flavors like the metallic 'taste' of fear. Or the stale dryness of panic.
Last, the reader needs a sense of how your point-of-view character is feeling. Consider the locale of an abandoned building setting. A victim of a natural disaster desperate for shelter is going to see this building one way; a scantily-clad teenage girl being stalked in the halls by a hatchet-wielding guy in a hockey mask will experience it in a totally different manner. Mood colors a setting every bit as much as the five physical senses.
So to recap the basic building blocks of setting:
Time of day
Here are a few paragraphs from the book, showing how we get a sense of place using these tools.
Light, props, taste and mood:
Cassidy Hamilton sighed before shoving a chocolate in her mouth. As cloying sweetness invaded her taste buds, she studied the page displayed on her illuminated reader for the second time.
General area, specific location, light, props, touch and mood:
She shifted, searching for a more comfortable position in the cramped ventilation shaft. Stretched out on her belly, her stiff, long-sleeved nightgown bunching around her knees, it wasn't easy to move around. The narrow ductwork, glowing silvery-white in the wash of light from her reader, was the only place she dared to read the illegal materials she'd downloaded from her grandfather's collection before being sequestered in the convent on Europa.
General area, specific location, time, props, and mood:
It was still early in the convent's sleeping hours on the eternal night side of the moon. Cassidy read every night in her hiding place, nibbling on sweets and snacks bought with the modest allowance her grandfather sent her. She'd been stuck on Europa for three years now, her days a monotonous drone of praying, tending crops, scrubbing floors, and Bible study. Even creeping through the ventilation system to spy on her fellow aspirants and the nuns had worn out its novelty. Only the stolen collection of banned books kept her mind sharp and sane. Fortunately, the library was vast. She'd barely sampled the many offerings her grandfather had kept hidden deep in secret computer files.
Smell, touch, and props:
Her thick cotton panties were soon damp. The scent of her juices, reminiscent of the salty tang of the Neuse River back on Earth, teased her nostrils.
Props and touch:
Cassidy's fingers slid down her soft, downy inner thigh and danced delicately over the moist crotch of her panties. She knew where the spot was, the sweet nubbin of skin that felt best. After only a moment's hesitation, she touched it.
A warm, melting sensation poured through her core. Cassidy sighed.
These few simple tools will bring your world alive, whether it takes place on a distant planet, a long-ago Scottish castle, or a dance club in the here and now. Well-described settings transport your readers away from the real world, which is why it's indispensible. Darn it.