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Setting the Scene

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Have you ever picked up a book, and from the moment you started reading, the story sucked you in and never let go until the final word? Did it seem like you were standing next to the character – seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and experiencing everything along with them?

I want readers to have the same experience when reading my work. So this spring, I enrolled in a creative writing course with an emphasis novel writing. The topics we’ve covered in class range from dialogue, character development, and one of my favorite things – building the setting of a novel.

To illustrate the importance of setting, I found several helpful items in the Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich, the primary resource for the class. According to Novakovich, a plot develops when the character relates to or is in conflict with the setting. A setting can also provide the perfect backdrop for the action in the scene.

There are two class activities that have drastically changed how I approach writing a scene. For one assignment, I developed a character who was an orthopedic surgeon, and made her visible through the surroundings. I created a list of everything she might observe in a surgical suite. I imagined her in the middle of the room and surrounded by interesting smells, a gurney with the patient, medical equipment and other personnel, beeping monitors and power tools, and the cold temperature of the room.

In the scene, she interacted with everything around her, and I threw in a few challenges for her to navigate. This one simple activity elevated the quality of the scene. My character and her actions came to life. In the end, she even provided me with a high-stakes plot filled with tension and conflict.

We performed this same activity in class, but in fun destinations like a coffee shop, emergency room, and carnival. In small groups, we plotted all of the items on a poster board and then rotated around, adding to the original list. Each group prioritized their list and chose seven of the best items to use in writing a scene in that location.

When I sit down and write a chapter, or revise my current work, I use these same strategies to structure my settings. My characters seem more realistic, the settings are packed with sensory details, and I’m left with plot ideas that push my story further.