Yet Another Blog Post: Setting the Scene
Hello again. I’m Mike Myers, senior editor of British Fantasy Award nominee Grimdark Magazine https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/. I sometimes write a blog about the writing craft, and this is it. Thanks for checking it out.
I love to read Joe Abercrombie, mostly because I’m a nitpicking fetishist for the writing craft (as an editor should be, I hope), and when I read Abercrombie, I almost never have to think about it. I get the story dream running in my mind (as John Gardner talks about in The Art of Fiction), and I know the right words will be in the right places. This is especially true for setting. Abercrombie gives readers just what they need to be immersed without being self-indulgent about description and details. In my editing work, I often find that writers have trouble getting the setting across quickly and effectively for their scenes. For the purpose of this post, I separate setting from the larger scope of world building to focus on how scenes are set up.
Below is a scene setup from Best Served Cold, which I happen to be reading to finish off the six-book First Law ‘trilogy‘ before A Little Hatred comes out next year. In this scene the main character, General Monza Murcatto, enters the main hall of Grand Duke Rogont’s palace to attempt to form an alliance with him. It is a tense scene: Murcatto and Rogont are former enemies, so she (Murcatto) is not sure if she will be granted an audience with Rogont or be killed on the spot. The scene takes place just past the midway point of the book, so the pacing is picking up as the story heads toward its climax.
There was a great pool in the marble hall beyond, surrounded by tall columns, murky water smelling strongly of rot. Her old enemy Grand Duke Rogont was poring over a map on a folding table, in a sober grey uniform, lips thoughtfully pursed. A dozen officers clustered about him, enough gold braid between them to rig a carrack. A couple looked up as she made her way around the fetid pond towards them.
There are several reasons I like this scene opening, which you can plainly see is very basic. The first is that it is short and sweet. The necessary details (more about this below) of the hall are laid out without excessive static description. The room has a ‘great pool’ in it, so we can assume it is a large room. The hall is ‘marble’. This not only creates an image in which to see the scene, but it gives the hall a sense of grandeur, as do the ‘tall columns surrounding the pool’. But the pool contains ‘murky water smelling strongly of rot’, which gives the setting a sense of decay. The grand hall is not what it used to be; it has fallen from power. We can sense, literally, with our eyes and nose, that the grand duke has fallen from power, so in that way the setting helps characterize the duke.
In addition to not belaboring the static details of the hall and keeping the pace brisk, the setup itself contains movement. Rogont and his men are ‘poring over a map’. We know Rogont is trying to defend himself against Duke Orso’s powerful army and mercenaries, and he is actively doing so as Murcatto enters the scene. His men are ‘clustered’ about him, also actively involved. Similarly, Murcatto ‘made her way around the fetid pool towards them‘. She is also in motion, keeping the setup from being static, and her movement reminds us again of the pool in the middle of the room, a necessary detail.
The pool is a necessary detail of the scene setup because eventually Murcotto will throw one of Rogont’s men into it. Similarly, the men are necessary details because she needs to throw one into the pool. I cannot stress enough how often it seems that writers decide on these types of actions halfway into their scenes and just plop a pool and some men into the scene as the idea comes to them. The men and pool pop out of nowhere, and the reader has to reimagine the setting of the scene – Oh, there’s a pool there? There are other men there? It makes for an awkward read and severely muddles the story dream in the reader’s mind. If you are going to have your main character throw a guy into a fetid pool, make sure you have a guy and a fetid pool in the scene setup. If you don’t, go back and put them there before you need them. Have everything ready for your action to take place.
Another thing about this scene setup that literally goes without saying in the example from Abercrombie is the relation between point of view and setting. This particular example is preceded by a paragraph in which Murcatto is greeted by a guard and led politely toward the room, which makes her suspicious because she and Rogont are former enemies and pretty much no one is ever polite to her. We are told that she liked “the feel of this less than if they’d kicked her down the street.” So we know before entering the hall that we are in Murcatto’s PoV. Therefore, when we get into the hall, there is no further need to draw attention to it. We are in her head, even in the third person, so there is no need to write, “The pool smelled fetid to Murcatto” or “She gazed around at the tall columns and the marble walls, and she saw a pool in the middle of the room.” I often find that writers that I have had the opportunity to edit (good ones, too) are afraid to let go of the PoV a little. They seem to think it must constantly be reinforced, which is not the case and becomes distracting and tiresome. Establish the PoV, and let it go, especially with regard to scene setup.
Lastly, please give your scenes settings. No one wants to read about characters acting in front of a blank green screen. Every scene needs at least a modicum of setting. Your readers expect it.
Well, that’s probably enough for today. If you have read all the way to here, I thank you very much. In my next post I hope to write a little more about setting with regard to point of view and mood. I hope you’ll tune in. If you have any comments or questions about this post or its contents, please leave them below on Facebook or Twitter or PM me or email me. There’s something funky about the way wix.com websites implement comments that I have not yet figured out.
Until next time, I am available to edit your writing projects and have been greatly enjoying a load of freelance work since my first blog post. You can contact me through my website <sffeditor.com>, by email <mike.myers.editor(at)gmail.com>, or at my Facebook page www.facebook.com/SFFEditor. I’d love to help you make your writing as excellent as it can be.