I think we all know how to create a scene. We make a hoo-ha. We put on a performance. We shout and we holler and we generally carry-on.
But of course what we’re talking about here is not creating a scene in this sense: we’re talking about creating a scene in a book or a poem or on stage or screen. We’re talking about conjuring up a place, or a situation – a scenario. The amazing thing is how little effort it takes to make a scene in this literary sense.
If I were tell you now, for example, to imagine a snow-capped mountain, you’d happily start to imagine a snow-capped mountain, and my work in scene-setting would effectively be done. When it comes to setting scenes, less is often more.
(As always, don’t take my word for it. Here’s Chekhov, writing to his brother in 1886: ‘In my opinion descriptions of nature should be very brief and have an incidental character … “The setting sun, bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, flooded with purple and gold” … “The swallows flying over the surface of the water, chirped merrily” – such commonplaces should be finished with.’)
Other scene-setting methods are of course available. One of the classic ways to introduce your reader/viewer/audience to a landscape is not to describe it, but to move through it.
The mapmaker and naturalist Tim Robinson has a trilogy of books about where he lives in Connemara, in the west of Ireland. In the first of the books, Connemara: Listening to the Wind, he explains his various principles and procedures, including his preferred method of walking his reader through a landscape. ‘I could, I suppose, turn to my reference books and scientific offprints and write sensibly about Roundstone Bog, outlining its topography and hydrography, its archaeology and ecology, history of land-use and current problems of conservation. But I prefer to imagine walks across it, enmeshing the reader in its textures, letting the generalities emerge when the pressure of detail compels them.’
What works in Connemara works perfectly well elsewhere. You’ll probably have come across the term ‘psychogeography’ to describe the work done by writers like Iain Sinclair, who like to drift around urban and suburban areas making remarks and observations about life, the universe and everything. You could try a spot of psychogeography yourself: just go for a dander, and think of some interesting things to say.
Alternatively, you could learn from the work of the great travel writers – they know how to set a scene. Take Jan Morris, for example. Or Gertrude Bell. Or Teju Cole – whose recent work combines writing with photography. (In its innovative use of image and text, Teju’s book Blind Spot does for non-fiction what W.G. Sebald’s similar experiments did a few years ago for fiction.)
Long-shots, close-ups, hawk’s eye views: writers need very little technical expertise to be able to picture a scene. No hoo-ha or hollering required.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.