Setting the scene in a novel: you have to do it again and again and again

Every time an author starts a new chapter or even a scene in a work of fiction, she or he is almost starting from scratch. Every scene has to be established. Where and when is it taking place? What is the time of day and what relation does this scene have to the one that preceded it. Even if the entire book takes place in one room, work has to be done to show the changes in that room as the light shifts or the furniture gets moved or the occupants change. The writer has to do the work that film cameras do in movies by showing the setting.

Judging from some of our clients, this is something that often gets neglected. Racing to tell the story, writers frequently neglect to explain in what context it is taking place. Thus, the action seems to be floating in space, not a good look for a novel.

To illustrate, we randomly pulled Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY off the bookshelf. This turns out to be a brilliant choice because Smith hops around from point of view to point of view and place to place. Here is how she begins some of her scenes:

The Bus Stop was a Wellington institution. For twenty years, it had been a cheap and popular Moroccan restaurant…”
“Only a mile down the hill, in leafy Queen’s Park, the numb practicalities that follow a death were being attended to…”
“A mega store demands a mega building…”
“’I need a homey, warm, chunky, fruit-based, wintery kind of a pie,’ explained Kiki leaning over the counter…”
“On Tuesday night, a water main burst at the corner of Kennedy and Rosebrook…”

In each of these examples, Smith establishes the setting in the first few words. The reader does not have to wonder where the scene is taking place. The technique not only eliminates doubt but draws the reader in to the richly described pie shop, funeral or humongous store. Far from floating in space the reader is there.

Setting the scene, to writers caught up in telling a story, may seem like tedious work, but it is necessary. The book won’t work without it.