Friday, August 18, 2017

Filming a Scene with Words

In movies and television, music and camera angle are two of the tools used to help set the tone of a scene. The brave main character exits a restaurant at night: cue ominous song. The sexy male character is about to surprise the girl he secretly loves with flowers: show close-up of protagonist buying a large bouquet of orchids and strike up the romantic melody. Writer’s can’t zoom in on a character or prop and we can’t add music to notify readers that something is about to happen. We have to rely on our words to set the scene.

When I’m writing, I like to imagine that I am the protagonist. I picture the scene as if I’m living it. By walking in my protagonist’s shoes, I’m able to see and feel what she does. And it all goes into the scene—that nervous tick, the elated butterflies in her stomach, the sweltering heat, the shadow moving in her peripheral vision, and so on. This helps me to bring the scene alive.

Take that scene where the beloved protagonist exits a restaurant with her friends. The words we choose set the scene for what’s to come:

     The night was cool and the sky clear, but the air felt wrong somehow. Thick. It crawled over my skin, leaving goose bumps in its wake.  
. . .
     Kaylee’s fingers tightened around my arm like a vise as she took a step closer to me. Her eyes were wide and focused on the far end of the parking lot.
(Embrace by Cherie Colyer)

In just a few sentences the reader is alerted that trouble is coming. Showing a character’s actions and facial expression, in essence, zoomed in on that character, adding suspense and a sense of mystery.

Another way to set the scene is by using a combination of words that elicit pleasant thoughts as well as the feeling of dread:

     A faint crackle like the crunch of dried leaves under dainty feet seemed to enter the kitchen through the open window. A weak pop-pop-swish slithered by me thereafter, and the sweet aroma of honeydew filled my nostrils. I spun around, expecting to see a bright-eyed faerie with sparkling cheeks and pointy little ears near the stove, but I was alone.
(Hold Tight by Cherie Colyer)

Or maybe you want the scene to be light and playful:

     We were a jumbled mass of arms and legs. His belt buckle rubbed the bare skin of my stomach, and his neck was in perfect kissing distance. My gaze traveled to his lips. His close proximity had me forgetting I was winning the game of keep-away until he snatched the case from me.
(Embrace by Cherie Colyer)

Now it’s your turn. Below are ten tips to help you set the scene:

  • Use action instead of telling where your characters are.
  • Plant images that convey tone.
  • Show us what time of day it is.
  • Help the reader see the immediate surroundings.
  • Show your characters’ body language.
  • Show your characters’ facial expressions.
  • Show what your characters are doing physically.
  • Incorporate different senses (sight, touch, smell).
  • Show your characters’ mood (angry, happy, scared, etc.).
  • Let the reader know what your characters want.

You don’t have to include all of these in every scene, but by using different combinations you will paint a picture with words that is as vivid and detailed as the movies and television.

Thanks for stopping by. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments. 


  1. A great list to guide a writer through a scene, Cherie.

  2. These are great examples! I'll keep them in mind while writing.

  3. These are wonderful tips and examples! I'm going to pin this post.

  4. I so agree. I understand that sometimes a writer must throw in some narrative summary, but I much prefer to peer over the characters' shoulders and watch the scene happen in real time.

    1. I'm the same way. I like feeling as if I'm in the action and experiencing everything with the characters.