This is the start of a story about a massive altercation within a family. I have adapted it from someone else’s story to illustrate setting the scene for your story. What do you need to include to plot your story?
A Sunday Lunch Spoiled.
There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch. Grandma was in charge. We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time. I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table. Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.
A Sense of Place
Many stories lack a sense of place. Whatever goes on in the story may be interesting but if it is not clear where it is happening, the audience is disorientated.
Mostly, business people don’t tell science fiction or fantasy stories and so we assume whatever’s happening is on earth! However, sometimes it’s hard to tell. You don’t have to spell out every detail. If you begin the story with “Once upon a time”, the chances are we are entering a fairy tale world. “Ancient Persia” is enough for most people to imagine somewhere a long time ago and on the other side of the world.
If this is a realistic story, it helps to know roughly what part of the world we’re in. There doesn’t need to be a lot of detail. If you say it takes place in Sheffield, even people who have never been there imagine something. However, it may not be that important. For example, a story that takes place at a conference. Perhaps we don’t need to know where the conference centre is and a description of the corporate space may be enough.
It may be more important to describe a smaller space. A home, a school or church, a park or shopping centre. These details offer a sense of where the activity of the story takes place. Name the city or county, if you think it relevant.
You don’t need to mention the place at the beginning of the story. For example, if the story takes place on a spaceship, the reveal might work towards the end.
The next point is how much detail to reveal about the setting for the story. “There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.” Most people imagine a kitchen with four people in it. We don’t know much about the kitchen so far. “Grandma was in charge. We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.” We don’t know what date the story is set in but clearly we have an old-fashioned kitchen here. “I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.” “Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.”
Do you see as I add sentences, we get a picture of the people and of the space they occupy? Let’s focus on the piano. When the setting was first mentioned, you would have imagined a generic kitchen and certainly not one with a piano! The piano has a point. There’s no point in mentioning the piano in the kitchen, if it is never mentioned again. When something happens involving the piano, we need to know it is there. The central table may be important too, as a place for the narrator and Timmy to hide.
The point is you don’t have to describe every detail but you do need to mention important stuff. A piano in the kitchen is odd, so you would not mention it if it had no role in the story. It doesn’t much matter what era the story is set in and the exact layout of the kitchen. Leave that to the audience’s imagination.
Setting the Scene
Every story is a summary. Trust your audience to imagine something. They adjust their vision. It’s not too difficult to incorporate a piano into a kitchen in your imagination. Indeed, a microwave might be more incongruous!
You don’t need to say a lot. It’s Christmas and someone sets a table for their partner to enjoy a quiet meal together. This might be the scene of a colossal row but you just need enough for the audience to imagine table decorations, the starched table cloth and crackers.
Where there is something important to the plot, mention it in passing and try to hide its significance. It’s often effective if the audience forgets something until you mention it again. Handled deftly, Timmy on the piano might just seem to be a bit of scene setting. It’s a family scene. You have to mention it before the action of the story begins because otherwise, it’ll seem really odd that there happens to be a piano in the kitchen.
Depending on what happens, the bowl of peas might be consumed by 2 children under the table as they watch the ensuing row. The Yorkshire puddings might be forgotten and burned. They don’t have to be, some of it is scene setting. Leave the audience to guess what is significant.
This story could take place any time over the last 50 years. It doesn’t much matter when it is set. But time, like space, is important. So, next time we’ll think about past and present in storytelling.