The biggest indicator to me that someone is new to writing stories is that they miss the opportunity to set the scene and anchor the reader in the story. I recoil with embarrassment when I go back and read my first attempts at writing a book! It consisted mainly of dialogue and introspection. Two talking heads floating in space does not a good story make.
The reason so many of us forget this part of telling a story is that all too often we are immersed in the movie in our minds. Moreover, if we are writing a story we actually lived, we are so familiar with the setting that we forget others who weren’t there may not know that, for example, the curtains in our childhood kitchen had little daisies on them that started out white and yellowed with age and the nicotine from my parents’ pack-a-day smoking habit.
Exactly what do I mean by setting the scene?
You can start with the basic who, what, where, when questions to shape the setting of the story. Who are the characters in that scene, what are they doing, where are they, when in time is this scene taking place?
Why this is important
If I yell at my husband, “This is the last straw!” standing in the lawyer’s office holding divorce papers we are in a very different story than if I yell at my husband, “This is the last straw!” standing beside the noisy blender handing him his smoothie. The difference is that in one scene I’m just going to have a green smoothie mustache not a custody battle over my children.
Setting the scene can also help create a mood for your writing. You can write about a dark and eerie location or a bright and sunny one. You can use the setting to bring an era back to life or show a modern-day period by incorporating today’s technology.
How does this apply to non-fiction?
Unless you are writing a textbook, most non-fiction has some form of storytelling in it that helps illustrate examples and draw the reader into the argument by eliciting the emotions in the pain points and possibilities they’re discussing. Of course, there will be less of a whole world building for a non-fiction story snippet, but the golden rule of writing still applies:
Show Don’t Tell
Here’s a short excerpt and a perfect example of using a story to show us a lesson on changing your inner narrative from the book Rising Strong by Brené Brown:
My husband, Steve, and I were having one of those days. That morning, we’d overslept. Charlie couldn’t find his backpack, and Ellen had to drag herself out of bed because she’d been up late studying. Then at work, I had five back-to-back meetings, and Steve, a pediatrician, was dealing with the cold-and-flu season. By dinnertime, we were practically in tears.
Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”
I knew exactly what was going on: I had turned his comment into a story about how I’m a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother. I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that’s become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting and professional life: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.”
Steve said, “No, I was going to shop yesterday, but I didn’t have time. I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.”
Brené expertly sets the scene by showing the stress the family was under and clearly has us in the kitchen staring into a bare fridge before the dialogue starts. No two talking heads floating in space.
It’s never too late to go back into your current draft of your book and make sure you have your characters and story anchored by setting. And remember we are always available for a manuscript assessment if you want to make sure your book is on the right track. Send us an email, we’d be happy to help!
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