Setting the scene for the reader

Recently, I received a review of some of my short stories indicating I had failed to establish the setting for the reader.  The editor said he felt “pressed up against the story” and unable to feel “in” the scene.

"It was a dark and stormy night ... "

So I did some research.  And, surprisingly, there is not a lot of advice out there on how to help the reader feel present in a story.  Every Google search circled back to just a few articles.  And the themes were generally common:

1)      Don’t just describe the scenery.  Tell the reader what it smells like.  Is it cold?  Does the character like their surroundings?  Does this place make them happy?  And why?

2)      Don’t give too much detail at once.  Disperse your description throughout the story.  As the character turns, what do they see now?  As the action is happening, ground your character (and thereby, your reader) in the scene.

3)      Not every element in the setting is necessary.   Make sure you are describing only what is relevant – only what feeds the storyline or helps establish character.

So, it seems that the art of setting the scene for the reader is not just about knowing what to describe, but also knowing what not to describe.   And achieving that delicate balance will – like most aspects of this art form – take practice.

One huge advocate of the “practice, practice, practice” method of writing is Stephen King.  One of the many many sentences I’ve highlighted in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is this:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

In this invaluable guide to writing (if you don’t have it, you must go buy it – immediately), King discusses his method of setting the scene, in which he takes a moment to scan the panorama  in his imagination before grasping at the first few things that he recognizes (be it the smell, the touch, the sound).  These are the pieces he weaves into the landscape to make the reader feel a part of the scene.  But, he also emphasizes that sharpening this ability takes time:

“Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.” 

Leave a comment


  1. My solution is kinda of cinematic. In a film usually each scene is a wide shot that establishes where the characters are. Then come a series of medium shots and in the center of the scene are the close ups. Most films end in a wide shot.

    My translation is to use the first paragraph to set the scene, often with a character entering. moving to descriptions of movement and surroundings. In the center of the scene would be descriptions of eye twitches, shaking hands, small phusical descriptions that accentuate charachters’ feelings, ending on a foreshadowing statement, or a line that indicates there is more conflict to come

    That’s me. Hope it helps.

  1. The Reader-Character Connection « I am a writer … dangit.

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