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Use 5 Senses to Create Perfect Settings

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1 Use 5 Senses to Create Perfect Settings on Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:03 pm

In his book SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL FICTION, Robert Newton Peck suggests that, " . . . a good author writes with a camera, not a pen." Let's consider, then, that if the author's eye is the camera, then his/her paper is the theater screen. What the author imagines or "sees" must be transmitted to the paper in such a dramatic way that the reader feels he/she is actually a part of the scene they're reading, experiencing it and seeing it in a physical sense.

In plotting our stories, we choose appropriate scenes to depict in the most dramatic way possible the message we wish to convey to our reader. These scenes are comprised of both action and setting, and it is our job to describe both in such a vivid way that our readers feel a part of the scene, that they have a sense of "place." If it's a love scene we are creating, our goal is to arouse our reader's romantic interest. This can be accomplished through several different techniques, one of which is setting. Through our ability to create and describe, setting itself can--and should--take on romantic tones.

When creating a scene, I choose a setting that is reflective of my characters' personalities and the story I'm telling, and I use the setting to enhance the action and to set a mood. Once I've decided on a location--whether it is a barnyard or a bedroom--I do a quick inventory of the setting and list everything that makes up that room or area. These are the things that I will have to work with in writing the scene, the props my characters will have available for use.

For means of demonstration, let's pretend we are writing a love scene and we are using a bedroom for the scene. Picture the bedroom lit with candlelight. Romantic music is playing softly from hidden speakers. A bottle of wine is sitting on the bedside table, uncorked. A crystal vase of freshly cut roses fills the room with its flowery scent. Satin sheets, cool to the touch, but soft on the skin, cover the bed. A fire crackles in a nearby fireplace and adds its own golden glow to the dimly lit room.

If we break this setting down into the simplest components, physically we have a bed, a nightstand, a vase of roses, candles, an uncorked bottle of wine, a fireplace.

Now let's take this one step further and sensually examine each of the physical components of the room, using the five senses. In the scene above, we have the soft glow of candlelight which casts a golden hue on everything in the room and which creates playful shadows on the wall. We have the heat from the fire, the smell of burning wood tangling with that of the scent of freshly cut roses. Beads of condensation pearl on the wine bottle and pool at its base. A cork lies discarded and forgotten on the carpeted floor. We have the crackling sound of burning wood shifting on the grate, the soothing sound of piano music. You have the flavor of the wine which the lovers will taste on each other's lips, the sensuous warming of the satin sheets as they move over them.

Add to this setting the emotions produced by our ability to arouse through action and we've placed our reader in the ultimate vicarious experience. The physical removal of clothing alone can be sensuous and titillating if paced well and described in such a way that the reader can visualize, almost feel the action.

If we are successful, the reader becomes a part of the love scene. She feels the scrape of silk against her own flesh when the hero slips the nightgown's thin strap over the heroine's shoulder, and the warmth of his hand as he drags it slowly down the heroine's arm. Goose bumps pebble her skin when the hero's fingertips skim the heroine's bare flesh. It is her breath that catches when the warmth of the hero's mouth closes over the heroine's exposed breast. And it is her sigh that blends with the soft music playing, her hands that circle the hero's neck to draw him closer.

This is just an example and a quick one, but I think you get the idea.

Warning: Don't set up setting! Have you ever read a particular passage of narrative and thought to yourself, "Boring. Where's the good stuff?" If so, and if you're like me, you probably start skimming until the story picks back up again. In my opinion, if a reader can pick out a paragraph or a section of dialogue and peg it as description or setting, then the writer isn't doing his/her job well. Feed setting to your reader in small doses and through a natural balance of narrative and action. And don't use description just to establish setting. Use it to carry the action forward, too.

Let's think back to that cameraman again and the tools he has to work with. In his camera bag, he probably carries a wide angle lens and a zoom lens, depending on what scene he's trying to capture. A writer has available to him/her these same tools.

Remember the movie "Paint Your Wagon?" Remember the opening scene? A wide panoramic view of prairie with miles of covered wagons stretched out across it, juxtaposed against a backdrop of wide blue sky. The opening scene in your book might be similar in that you are painting a grand view of the setting in order to give your reader a sense of "place." But use caution. Do not overload your reader with every detail that your wide angle lens offers. Just give them enough information to develop a sense of place, of time, then switch to your zoom lens and go for detail.

A handy tool to keep beside your computer or work area is an empty toilet paper roll. You know, the little cardboard tube. And, no, I'm not crazy. Use the tube as your zoom lens. Pick it up and look through it. You won't see much, but that's the point. This lens restricts your vision to one spot of something at the end of the tunnel, forcing you to focus there. Pick your scene, look through your zoom lens, zero in on the setting and the action taking place in that small spot and write what you see. If you do, and you apply the five senses to what you see, your writing will come alive with texture, color, flavor and sound.

To recap:
Establish the scene.
Create the setting, making note of all physical components.
Apply the five senses to each physical component and establish sensory detail.
Balance description between narrative and dialogue, remembering not to overload your reader with detail.
Use your description to move the plot forward.
Give your characters props to work with that are a natural part of the setting.
Use the tools in your camera bag, both the wide angle lens and the zoom lens, where appropriate, but use them with care.

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