Writing 101: Setting the Scene

A popular way that some people describe lack of scenic description in a story is “white room syndrome.” While I understand the analogy, I want to use my very limited theatre experience to offer a better way to give help for setting a scene.

Imagine, if you will, an empty stage.

An empty stage in a theatre, like this picture of the Globe Theatre in London, has no set. If you ever read Shakespeare plays (as opposed to actually watching them), you might come across dialogue like this:

SIWARD
What wood is this before us?
MENTEITH
The wood of Birnam.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Back in Shakespeare’s day, they didn’t have fancy sets aside from the upper level. As you can see, the only “set” here is very minimal, with no extra stuff on the stage. Depending on the scene, of course, they added things to this stage to help convey the scene in the best way possible. Some theaters use backdrops, for example.

So what does that all mean when it comes to writing? In theater, similar to a novel, most of the time the audience can fill in the blanks for themselves. You don’t have to describe every single detail of everything in the room. Instead, I always imagine the settings of my books as being played out on an empty stage.

If you’re the kind of writer who loves to describe a scene before the action occurs, point out what’s important. The characters can also acknowledge the scene in dialogue, but avoid having them just describe everything around them. Example:

OBERON
How long within this wood intend you stay?

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Other factors, such as weather, could also play a role in the scene, such as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which literally begins with a storm. And yes, the characters in the scene are talking about the storm in the dialogue, but it’s pretty minimal:

ANTONIO: Where is the master, boatswain?

Boatswain: Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your
cabins: you do assist the storm.


GONZALO: Nay, good, be patient.


Boatswain: When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin: silence! trouble us not.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The point is that when it comes to putting description into a scene, imagine a stage with enough props, furniture, and a backdrop that can convey just what is necessary. The first minute of this part from Singin in the Rain is a really good example:

Trust that the reader has enough imagination to create a picture in their minds. I don’t even have that vivid of an imagination myself, but whenever I read novels, I can usually imagine enough to create a movie in my head. So, in the words of Shakespeare, “Screw your courage to the sticking place” and get to writing!

Books I can recommend that do a great job at setting scenes:

  • Pride and Prejudice, especially when Jane Austen describes Pemberley.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer
  • Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  • Desperate Forest by Cece Louise