It’s a truism that every story needs a scene. Disembodied voices or even actions are rarely powerful. Even a playscript must indicate how and where the dialogue takes place.
To describe a setting or action is known as exposition. It is valuable in just about any story, otherwise the reader won’t make sense of the narrative. Use exposition skilfully and you’ll do well in a story writing contest. But over use of exposition can kill the pace.
Add a spin to your setting
A tale might begin in some exotic location. Possibly the writer wants to conjure up a mood of vacation or magic immediately. But if a mood is created, it must be employed to good effect. One ploy of suspense is to end the story with a fresh perspective. The major prizes in a top writing award frequently go to stories with a spin at the end. Possibly the joyful setting conceals horror or a dour place is filled with happy surprises?
Use setting to characterize a person
A setting can also be valuable to portray a person’s essential nature. Their response to their physical environment can describe them. For example, a car blows a tyre in a rural location. A bad-tempered person might kick the tyres with anger. Somebody else might cheerfully go for a walk. What a splendid chance to explore the scenery!
You can use a brief description of setting, and some trivial event in which the person responds to the event, to speak volumes about that person. The scene can then be forgotten.
Put a character into a hostile place.
Supply a frozen mountain as a background and only a bad story teller can fail to grab the reader’s attention Merely look at the winning stories in a creative writing contest. The failure who turns out to be a leader or heroine, or the charlatan who collapses at a genuine challenge, may well be a formula – but it has defined many a best-selling novel.
The way in which a scene is crafted will depend upon the voice of the tale. A tale told solely through one character’s eyes will transmit a perception of the surroundings touched by the character’s mood.
Suppose a children’s barbecue is introduced as a light-hearted setting. Why is the mother in tears? Her child is not there. Why? A story of tragedy might lie under that joyful event.
Setting can impart mood indirectly
If a story is penned from the perspective of the character, their own reflections can be presented with great immediacy. However, a story related in the third person must impart emotions less directly. Certain elements in the environment must be selected to reveal the persons’ feelings. The setting will affect their reflections or actions.
Imagine an old man gets chewing gum on his heel. It might confirm to him every gloomy thing he has ever thought about that wretched suburb, the people and its byelaws. His bitter reflections can show the reader, in just a line or two, all they need to know about his pique, age, belief system or political position.
How to reveal a lot of detail naturally
Of course, sometimes it’s important to impart a lot of minute detail about the location. Perhaps its history or peculiarities are vital to the plot. But modern readers will not tolerate extended descriptions – and they’ll not remember the details in any case.
A better idea is to choose just a few important factors in the scene and present them throughout the story. It’s a failsafe ‘story engine’. For example, a person can muse upon the history of a setting and recall some pungent memory.
Make the setting emblematic
A neat trick is to employ a minor aspect to shape some key aspect of the character’s personality or of the plot. The story can then come back to that aspect at important moments, like the ringing of a bell. An ominous forest can appear at the outset then reappear throughout. On each occasion it might be depicted in a different way, as challenging, foreboding or prophetic, to sum up changes in the persons’ feelings or the story’s development.