I’m so excited to welcome Beth Woodward to the blog today. Her writing is lovely, and her advice on building a scene – it’s stellar. . . so if you’re looking for wisdom on how to “show, don’t tell,” you’ll want to read this. 🙂 Also, Beth loves Doctor Who, so there’s that.
Do you remember the scene in Titanic when Rose descends the grand staircase into the Titanic ballroom, where a tuxedo-clad Jack is waiting for her? Rose is wearing a dress that shimmers underneath the modern electric lighting. Jack is awed by her beauty.
What about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when the first-year students walk into the Great Hall for the first time? The 11-year-olds are dwarfed by the enormous room, lined with arched windows and fiery torches. Hundreds of candles float in the air, and the ceiling has been enchanted to look like the night sky.
These scenes are memorable because they use visuals to convey mood and enrich the world these stories are set in. As writers, though, we’re at a disadvantage: we don’t have set builders and costume designers, so we have to rely solely on our words.
Confession: when my editor told me I had to work on my scene building in The Demon Within, I panicked. I don’t have a visual imagination. In my head, everything looks like the 1970s split level house I lived in during high school. Thankfully, we have some tricks that can help us paint a scene for our readers.
Tip #1: Start with what you know—but don’t stop there.
Stephen King famously sets many of his novels around Maine and New England, probably because that’s where he’s lived for most of his adult life. He already knew the geography and culture, so it likely saved him a lot of research.
But just picking a setting isn’t enough. Remember that settings can be portrayed in different ways to convey totally different things. Both Sex and the City and Jessica Jones are set in New York City. But if you didn’t know better, they would feel like two totally different places. Consider the way you want to describe them.
Tip #2: The internet is your best friend.
With the internet, we now have an amazing amount of knowledge—and scenery—at our fingertips. I frequently use Google and Google image search to help me come up with specifics about scenes I’m writing. For instance, I knew that one of my scenes in The Demon Within would have to take place in a location with no other people—difficult to find in Manhattan. But I knew that underneath the city were a lot of unused subway stations. Google “abandoned subway station nyc” and one of the results that pops up is the City Hall Subway Station, which was closed in the 1940s but still viewable at the end of the 6 train line. It’s gorgeous, with skylights and arches and old-fashioned chandeliers. How could I resist using it?
For more fantasy-driven settings, DeviantArt can be an amazing source of inspiration. There’s a lot of really cool art out there that can help you think outside the box, when it comes to fantasy world building.
Tip #3: Real settings can be fictionalized.
Writers often take real-world locations and fictionalize them, which gives them the opportunity to take more creative liberties. When I was working on The Demon Within, I needed a house for an eccentric, wealthy character. Fallingwater, which I had visited back in high school, kept popping into my head. It was perfect, and I knew I was never going to come up with something as cool as a house built into a waterfall on my own. I changed the name and some of the details, and I moved the house to a different location, and BAM—the real-world Fallingwater became my fictional setting.
When you’re writing fiction, it can be tempting to focus exclusively on character and plot. But in doing so, you will eliminate much of the potential richness and texture of your story. Regardless of whether you’re writing a historical mystery or a futuristic sci-fi novel, setting the stage can help you create a distinct, memorable world.
Beth Woodward is a sci-fi/fantasy author, cat lover, Doctor Who aficionado, and karaoke junkie. Her debut novel, The Demon Within, will be published by California Coldblood Books on April 12. She can be reached via her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.