As a writer, I loathe setting the scene. I’ve literally spent hours going over the same few paragraphs to make sure I “got it right,” only to delete those same paragraphs on my revision. So much time wasted! But at least all that needless writing taught me a few things.
Lesson 1: When setting a scene (at least in first person or close third-person), only mention what’s important to your character at that time.
As an example of what I mean, take a look at this passage from an early draft of my work in progress. Fifteen-year-old Layla doesn’t know why she’s getting called to the principal’s office, but she fears that something is wrong with her mom. Notice how Layla is way too focused on the details of what she sees rather than her fear of what might have happened to her mom:
The secretary stops outside her office, turns the knob, and the door swings open. It’s hard to keep the panic down as my eyes skitter around the room. There’s Principal Grant sitting behind her desk looking stern and concerned. Mrs. Letz the guidance counselor is pressed in behind her wearing her usual navy pantsuit. And then there’s Aunt Tanya, who I haven’t seen since Grandpa’s funeral. With her ashy blonde hair, squinty blue eyes, and collagen-filled lips, I recognize her instantly. She’s skinny, like my mom, but the pale arms sticking out of her satiny red top are sculpted with muscle. She’s wearing black jeans and heels, but unlike my mom, she doesn’t clomp around like a goat. Aunt Tanya’s had a lot of practice walking in heels, like she was born on her tippy toes. Like she was born reaching for high places.
In the above passage, there’s too much focus on how people look and act and especially on what they’re wearing. More realistically—given Layla’s worries—the details of how the characters look and act would shrink down to a bare minimum, just enough to ground Layla in the experience. Now take a look at my revision:
Mrs. Grant stops outside her office, turns the knob, and the door swings open. I register the face of Mrs. Letz, my guidance counselor, but there’s another woman I don’t recognize.
And then I do. I haven’t seen Aunt Tanya since Grandpa’s funeral. Her hair’s an ashy blonde now, but her face is the same: squinty blue eyes, collagen-filled lips and apple-hard cheeks.
“Oh, honey,” says Aunt Tanya as she buries me in a bony hug. Never once has she hugged me.
When revising, I asked myself: In this tense moment of anxiety, would Layla notice all those details about the other characters? The answer was no. The fact that Mrs. Letz is wearing a navy blue pantsuit is completely unimportant, so I was able to delete that detail altogether. I also decided that the details of what Aunt Tanya is wearing can come later, where they don’t interrupt this moment of intense anxiety. Moreover, some descriptive details can be slipped into the action, as I did when I described Aunt Tanya’s hug as “bony.”
Lesson 2: Filter the Scene Through Your Character’s Experience.
Of course, sometimes the descriptive details are important. When my teenage protagonist walks into an unfamiliar place, for example, her mind would focus on whatever helps her make sense of the situation. Would she count the number of chairs in the room? Not unless she’s worried about having enough chairs. Would she estimate the room’s dimensions? Not likely. If the room is large, and the largeness of the room is important to the character’s experience, she might describe it as “the size of a gymnasium” rather than “about forty feet long.” If she spoke, she might notice that her voice echoed. Similarly, she might say the room was “crowded with chairs” or “a single chair sat in the center of the room.” However, if the chair sat in the corner or behind a desk, she probably wouldn’t notice it. She’d only make a note of the chair if it became important to her experience.
I could go on, but I hope you get my point. Narrow in on your character’s point of view. Get down to her level. See what she sees and hear what she hears. If she wouldn’t make note of something, chances are, it’s not important to the scene.