Tips on Great Writing: Setting the Scene

scene with bicyclists on the road in town

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The setting is the place and time in which the action of a narrative takes place. It's also called the scene or creating a sense of place. In a work of creative nonfiction, evoking a sense of place is an important persuasive technique: "A storyteller persuades by creating scenes, little dramas that occur in a definite time and place, in which real people interact in a way that furthers the aims of the overall story," says Philip Gerard in "Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life" (1996).

Examples of Narrative Setting

  • "The first den was a rock cavity in a lichen-covered sandstone outcrop near the top of a slope, a couple of hundred yards from a road in Hawley. It was on posted property of the Scrub Oak Hunting Club -- dry hardwood forest underlain by laurel and patches of snow -- in the northern Pocono woods. Up in the sky was Buck Alt. Not long ago, he was a dairy farmer, and now he was working for the Keystone State, with directional antennae on his wing struts angled in the direction of bears." -- John McPhee, "Under the Snow" in "Table of Contents" (1985)
  • "We hunted old bottles in the dump, bottles caked with dirt and filth, half buried, full of cobwebs, and we washed them out at the horse trough by the elevator, putting in a handful of shot along with the water to knock the dirt loose; and when we had shaken them until our arms were tired, we hauled them off in somebody's coaster wagon and turned them in at Bill Anderson's pool hall, where the smell of lemon pop was so sweet on the dark pool-hall air that I am sometimes awakened by it in the night, even yet.
    "Smashed wheels of wagons and buggies, tangles of rusty barbed wire, the collapsed perambulator that the French wife of one of the town's doctors had once pushed proudly up the planked sidewalks and along the ditchbank paths. A welter of foul-smelling feathers and coyote-scattered carrion which was all that remained of somebody's dream of a chicken ranch. The chickens had all got some mysterious pip at the same time, and died as one, and the dream lay out there with the rest of the town's history to rustle to the empty sky on the border of the hills." -- Wallace Stegner, "The Town Dump" in "Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier" (1962)
  • "This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows. After rains water accumulates in the hollows of small closed valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness that get the local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and between them the soil shows saline traces." Mary Austin, "The Land of Little Rain" (1903)

Observations on Setting the Scene

  • Grounding the reader: "Nonfiction has done a much better job in terms of setting the scene, I think. ...Think of all the splendid nature writing, and adventure writing -- from Thoreau to Muir to Dillard ... where we have fine settings of scenes. Setting the scene precisely and well is too often overlooked in memoir. I'm not sure exactly why. But we -- the readers -- want to be grounded. We want to know where we are. What kind of world we're in. Not only that, but it is so often the case in nonfiction that the scene itself is a kind of character. Take the Kansas of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," for example. Capote takes pains right at the beginning of his book to set the scene of his multiple murders on the plains and wheat fields of the Midwest." -- Richard Goodman, "The Soul of Creative Writing" 2008)
  • Creating a world: "The setting of a piece of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, is never some realistic snapshot of a place. ... If you were to describe with the utmost accuracy every structure in a city ... and then went on to describe every stitch of clothing, every piece of furniture, every custom, every meal, every parade, you would still not have captured anything essential about life. ... As a young reader, place gripped you. You wandered with Huck, Jim, and Mark Twain down an imagined Mississippi through an imagined America. You sat in a dreamy, leafy wood with a sleepy Alice, as shocked as she when the White Rabbit bustled by with no time to spare. ... You traveled intensely, blissfully, and vicariously -- because a writer took you somewhere." -- Eric Maisel, "Creating an International World: Using Place in Your Nonfiction" in "Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises," ed. by Sherry Ellis (2009)
  • Shop talk: "A thing I never know when I'm telling a story is how much scenery to bung in. I've asked one or two scriveners of my acquaintance, and their views differ. A fellow I met at a cocktail party in Bloomsbury said that he was all for describing kitchen sinks and frowsy bedrooms and squalor generally, but for the beauties of Nature, no. Whereas, Freddie Oaker, of the Drones, who does tales of pure love for the weeklies under the pen-name of Alicia Seymour, once told me that he reckoned that flowery meadows in springtime alone were worth at least a hundred quid a year to him. Personally, I've always rather barred long descriptions of the terrain, so I will be on the brief side." -- P.G. Wodehouse, "Thank You, Jeeves" (1934)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Tips on Great Writing: Setting the Scene." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Tips on Great Writing: Setting the Scene. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Tips on Great Writing: Setting the Scene." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).