Carrying the Setting Through the Scene

Stories take time to read.  That’s just the truth of it.  And while your readers take their own sweet time to read your novel, they’re going to forget things.  Sure, they’ll remember the name of your main character and what the Cauldron is and what its significance to the story goal is, but they’re going to forget the ‘small’ things.  Like how cold it is, how much the main character misses home, or how much the gunshot wound in his leg hurts.  In a word, they’ll lose what I call SSA (Story Situational Awareness.)  To make matters worse, if you take the time to keep bringing SSA up so that they don’t forget, they’ll yell “SHOW DON’T TELL” at your manuscript and throw it into the fiery inferno (also known as the ‘read later’ shelf and you can expect them to never pick your novel up again.)

Keeping feelings and settings in your readers’ recent memory without them finding out that that’s what you’re trying to do requires finesse, and a lot of it.  But don ‘t worry too much, because I’ve got a couple tricks to keep your readers focused on the right things, while their SSA is swirling around the back of their subconscious, keeping them immersed in your story world.

Build your scene slowly

You’ve written that opening paragraph.  Your scene is all set.  But a thousand words of action and dialogue later, your reader has forgotten about the sub-freezing temperatures, or the ache of the old bullet wound in your hero’s shoulder.

And what can you do about it?  Break the dialogue up every twenty lines to say “Bob’s shoulder hurt lots”?  Not only will this sound boring and repetitive, it’s telling and it won’t have any real effect on your reader.

First off, you need to show and not tell.  If you are trying to communicate pain, you need to show it.  (Related: Pain More than a Burn)  If you are trying to communicate unrelenting heat, you need to show that.  And not just show it.  You need to break it up.  What are the many ways pain, heat, exhaustion or other (physical or emotional) settings affect our lives?

Once you’ve determined a number of detailed effects the setting has on your hero, spread them out and insert them in order of increasing severity.  First it’s so cold your hero’s fingers hurt.  Then they go numb.  Then, after he’s been out in it for a long time, they crack, peel, and bleed.  Finally they start to affect his thoughts.  First he’s taking ill-advised risks, then blatant mistakes, then finally all he can think are the words ‘so cold’.  Use these increasingly severe details to keep the setting in the forefront of your readers’ mind.

Bookmark it

Another technique for keeping your reader’s SSA going is adding bookmark thoughts to the POV character’s inner dialogue.  Bookmark thoughts are quick, super short sentences that allude to themselves.  For example, in the above example of the cold, a set of bookmark thoughts might read “It was so cold,” “So cold”, “So brutally cold.”  As long as there isn’t too much going on in between your bookmarks, the readers will immediately think of the last bookmark as they read the new one, which will help pull them through the scene

Is it telling?  Yes, maybe.  But it’s your character’s thoughts, and with that excuse you can get away with anything.  😉


Other Characters

Finally, if the focus of the SSA is universal (like cold) and not personal (like, for instance, pain) you can show not only your POV character’s thoughts, but also your other characters’ reactions to it.  If your scene is supposed to be cold, show your other character’s shivering; if it’s supposed to be creepy, show them cowering behind someone else, or jerking there flashlight to shine on every noise.  Use your other characters’ actions (and dialogue) to subtly remind your readers about the SSA, (and even engage them in it.  After all, actions speak louder than words…)


How do you prolong your readers’ SSA?  What tough emotions or feelings have you had difficulties stretching over long scenes?  How did you overcome it?  Let us know in the comments below?


Photo: Set, Aftab Uzzaman, CC BY-NC 2.0

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Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.

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