How To Set The Scene For Your Reader


In a way, the writer can think of these as scene markers. Here are the four ways to make your reader comfortable.

  1. Character marker
  2. Setting marker
  3. Time marker
  4. Goal marker

For example, you could open a scene like this:

Greg stood barefoot on the warm wooden deck of his holiday house in Clarens, looking out at the Maluti Mountains. At twilight, the mountains were robed in blue shadows and scarfed by thick cloud. Perfect. He lifted his iPhone to frame this breath-taking view. He wanted to send it to Gillian back in Johannesburg, show her just what she was missing—always putting her career before their life together.

In these few short paragraphs, see if you can identify the markers. We come into the scene through Greg’s viewpoint—he is our lens into the story (character). He has an iPhone (time). We know where he is by what he is looking at (setting). We get a sense of his emotions and we’re introduced to the conflict (goal). The reader is comfortable that he is orientated and will read on.

Of course, you could play with each of these markers as you become more experienced as a writer. Why not try it in dialogue?

“I’m looking out at the mountains.” Greg spoke into his iPhone. “They’ve never looked more beautiful.”
“On the other end of the line, Gillian sighed. “I wish I could be in Clarens with you, but I have to work.”

Indeed, you could create abstract elements in each marker to intrigue the reader and pull them in, taking them in to the story from a different viewpoint or using an unusual narrative voice.

Let’s try this:

White exploded into white. A violent emptiness grew from a deeper emptiness. Don’t open your eyes, don’t open your eyes. Silent voices struggled through the Megaphone. The thin drip, drip, drip of clear pharmaceutical poison found its way into a network of veins, into blood, into a cottonwool mind. If you open your eyes, they’ll be back—the wolves, the marionettes, the eyeless children. The voice is brittle and cold. Of course, the doctor had issued a warning: stop taking your meds and you’ll wind up at Sterkfontein again.

Here the markers are less clear, but we can guess that we’re probably in the mind of a psychiatric patient, who has been sedated. Time takes on a new meaning or is lost. We can assume we’re in a psychiatric hospital. The fragments start fitting together.

No story exists in a vacuum

Whatever approach you chose, keep in mind that no story exists in a vacuum. Even if it does take place in a nebulous and enigmatic form, this needs to come through early on in the scene. Don’t leave the reader hanging. Make sure that what is in your head makes it on to the page in a radiant way.

TIP: Jot down the markers in your notebook – it will make it easier to check them when you edit.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:
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This article has 2 comments

  1. Ulrike Hill

    Excellent article Anthony.

  2. Hana Bilqisthi

    Thank you so much. It is eye-opening. Now I realized what’s wrong with my writing. 🙂

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