My thoughts are with Shelly Lowenkopf today as he and a lot of other Santa Barbara folks try to deal with the wildfires sweeping down from the hills. May there be rain and lots of it.
On his blog, Shelly talked (eloquently, as usual) about what to take and what to leave when fire chases you out of your house.
Writers face a similar challenge as they construct a scene. Which details are vital, which just clutter things up? The easy answer is: Include only those things which develop character or advance the story.
Fine. How do we tell what those are? Most any setting has a million things one could mention, and some writers insist on mentioning them all.
Put yourself inside your character’s skin. As you enter the scene, what things do you first notice? Why are they important? Maybe all those bowling trophies piled on the rug bring back memories of the glory days at Diamond Lanes when you were the league champ–when you were a contender. You fondle each one, perhaps reflecting that it’s probably time you got a life.
Maybe your old love, the hauntingly beautiful Louise Dingfobb, sits in a love seat by the window gazing out at the moonlit garden. Most contents of the room go unnoticed; the moonlight on her cheek captures your gaze. Or the four-poster bed in the corner.
Point your metaphorical camera at things the characters notice. Describe those things as the characters perceive them. A car goes by. One character marvels at that, ” . . .cherry red ’68 Mustang–dude listen to those glass packs.” Another sees, “One of those ridiculous penis-extender muscle cars.” (I once had a girlfriend who drove a ’68 Dodge Hemi–really fast. But that’s another story.)
Don’t assume that because you, the author, knows stuff, your character does, too.
Sister Mary Catherine squinted at the sub-machine gun. “The MP5 is vastly overrated,” she said. “Unreliable. With that thing, it’s spray and pray.”
A final thought: Leave room for the reader to fill in the details. He or she will do a better job than you can. If you show us a crystal vase, a red rose and a white marble fireplace, we can pretty much picture the room.
Here’s Archibald MacLeish, from his poem, “Ars Poetica”: “For all the history of grief/an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”
You’ll find “The 11 elements of a scene” under ‘writer’s tips’ at


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