Thursday, January 05, 2012

Setting The Scene with Linda Style

This year at The Pink Heart Society we're inviting your favorite authors to share with us how they create those settings that take us away from the every day. First up is SuperRomance author Linda Style.


The best scenes are those that pull us in and make us feel as if we are there seeing the sights and feeling the action for ourselves. Right?

I recently watched a Stephen King movie, “Bag of Bones” and was struck by how masterfully the scene was set. But it was more than just scene setting. The director gave us a quick glimpse of what the place looked like, then went directly to the main character who, after hearing a noise…a scratching sound…awakens from a nightmare. He reacts by sitting up. The room is semi-dark and ominous. My heartbeat quickens, not because of the dark, but because of the sound. The man, still groggy from sleep and reliving the nightmare about his dead wife, listens and hears nothing. He begins to relax. I relax, too, but not completely. And just at that moment, a rustling, snuffling, deep breathing sound comes from under the bed. My heart leaps to my throat, a cold chill runs up my spine, and as the man slowly leans down to look under the dust ruffle, I instinctively cover my eyes. In setting the story up this way, the writer/director has immediately tapped into one of the greatest childhood fears…the monster under the bed.

And I felt the same fear I did as a child.

In that one scene, he’s set up far more than a simple description of the setting could ever do. He sets the tone. He lets you, the reader, know…this is going to be a scary story…and you will be afraid. There’s no question that the hero is going to be in deep and scary trouble. We know little about the story, but already, we’ve felt the character’s pounding heart, the sense that he’s not alone. We know that fear first hand and we can empathize…and because we do, we want to know what’s going to happen next.

Like movies, setting the scene in a novel is about so much more than telling the reader where the character is and what the place looks like. It’s about tapping into the reader’s psyche so he not only visualizes the setting, he “feels” it. He relates.

Using emotion to set the scene is one of the most powerful ways to make your setting do double duty…and hook the reader at the same time.

Holy Sedona by Dennis Mojado
The setting my new book, A SOLDIER’S SECRET, was inspired by my fond feelings about a place in my home state. The story is set in the small town of Spirit Creek, Arizona, near Sedona, a setting that rivals the Grand Canyon in its magnificent landscape. Arizona is my adopted state and I frequently go hiking in the red rock mountains near Sedona, so it seemed natural to choose that as a setting for my three connected books. (A SOLDIER’S SECRET is the last ) But I was truly inspired when I realized how much more I could do with it. It isn’t the magnificence of the setting that’s important to my heroine, it’s how living there makes her feel. The eons-old rock is a testament to longevity, a symbol of stability, and gives her a sense of permanence, something she’s never had. She feels as if she’s finally found her place in the world…that she belongs, and I use those emotions to help set the scene.

Photo by Linda Style
Setting the scene with emotion was especially important since the setting plays into the heroine’s internal conflict. Hiding the fact that she has PTSD, she’s careful not to expose herself to things she knows might trigger an episode. Something as simple as a car backfire or the evening news can set her on that path and when she feels the first signs of an episode, she focuses on her surroundings--her physical reality--to bring herself down. In writing from this perspective, I focused more on the surroundings than I ever have and in doing so, I added another layer and made the story and characters more complex.

When I begin a scene, I orient the reader to time and place. Sometimes that’s all I need to do, but 99 percent of the time, I want the setting to do double or triple duty. I want the setting to come alive for the reader. The most powerful way to do that is through my character’s emotions…and I get to his emotions through his senses…what he sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. Whenever I find myself simply describing the setting, I stop and ask, ‘what is my character feeling…and why does he feel that way?’

When your protagonist sees something, he has an instant, visceral reaction based on his unique experiences. Maybe he winces at seeing a mother slam her child into a wooden chair in the corner of the spare, dingy room …because in the back of his mind he remembers how his mother used to beat him. Or maybe he smiles at seeing a cluster of childish drawings on the wall in his doctor’s otherwise sterile office, the same kind of pictures his dead son used to like to draw.  The scent of cinnamon in a modern stainless steel kitchen might make him think of his grandmother, the only person who ever cared about him. Maybe the bitter taste of chicory coffee served at the 1950s style all-night diner with posters of iconic movie stars plastered on its walls and juke boxes in every booth jacked up the exhilaration he felt he night he killed his first victim--and recreating that feeling is why he goes there after each kill.

When tempted to simply describe a place, try using your character’s emotions to convey the setting and see how it changes things. Try it on any kind of description and see what happens.

When reading, do you pay attention to descriptions of the setting or to what the character is thinking and feeling?

When writing, what techniques do you use to set the scene?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you leave a comment, you may be the one to win a copy of A SOLDIER’S SECRET.

Happy New Year and Happy Writing!

Linda Style
THE MISTAKE SHE MADE, still available online
4.5 Stars Top Pick RT " original story with wonderfully compelling characters."

A side note: Writing this book gave me a special interest in the issue of PTSD and made me realize how many of our heroes now returning from Iraq will be affected by this debilitating disorder. My interest led me to the Wounded Warrior Project, to which I’ll be donating a percentage of the profits from this book. You can learn more about the project at


  1. I'm really taken by your gorgeous pictures - they make me want to be there right now!

  2. Great blog - and great photo's - I'm just imagining a picnic next to that river bank (((sigh))).

    As a reader I love descriptions of the H/h - so I can picture them both, and then try and capture all their emotions as they go through their roller coaster story.

    As a writer (unpubbed) I try (and mostly fail!) to use the 5 senses when describing scenes/characters.

    Caroline x

  3. I do this a lot in my books--using the setting to help define character conflicts or motivations--or to set a moody, suspenseful backdrop for my romantic suspense books. (But you explained it so clearly! Thank you.) For example, the dreariness and sapping of energy of rain--and how it masks things visually. Is the character a contrast to that mopey feeling of the setting? Or is it a reflection of his/her mood? And think of all the danger that can lay in wait, masked by the cover of a heavy rain. And so on.

    Love the pictures, too. Dramatic landscapes like the Red Rocks are so inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great post!

    As a reader I do pay attention to the settings for the exact reasons you talk about. As a writer, I use the senses and then a few specific details about the setting. I try to make the setting important to the characters and I make it somewhere that is important to me. If I love the setting I'm better able to share that love in my writing, which hopefully makes it better for the reader.

  5. Good settings and how they affect characters can enhance a story. It only takes a few words for a reader to understand what time of the year it is-sweat, dust, horses, smell of cattle equals summer, cattle ranch. All that's left is the location-Texas, Wyoming, Montana, or wherever you want to place it. Many years ago I read lots of Mills and Boon Harlequins and literally traveled all over the world through reading them. Great post! Your book sounds like a great read. And thanks for supporting Wounded Warriors.
    Thorne (

  6. Thanks for stopping by everyone.

    As a reader, I also love descriptions of the H/H, Caroline, and as a writer, I like to describe them in ways that conveys both looks and personality.

    Alexa, you hit the nail on the head when you say that loving the setting helps when it comes to description. The author's emotions can't help but show through...and it makes the story all the richer for the reader.

    So true, AndThorne. One perfect word, one perfect action can be all that's needed when done with finesse. I also loved traveling with the Mills and Boon books.

  7. When reading I pay attention to both the setting and how the character is feeling. I think sometimes how they are feeling makes the setting stronger.

  8. Thank you so much for raising awareness of PTSD and your very generous contribution to Wounded Warriors.

  9. When reading I try to pay attention to both the characters' feelings and the setting.

  10. Hi there, Linda! Thanks for the helpful post! It's a good reminder that a writer doesn't need but a few details to evoke a mood--and too many can undo all the good she's done. Not that I'm speaking from experience, or anything. :-) Yay, you, for contributing to Wounded Warriors! That is so admirable.

  11. I'm a visual person and sometimes don't remember if it was a book I read or a movie I saw. The setting is so important. I love the Red Rocks and the beautiful photos you attached to this great blog.

    Mary Keith

  12. Linda - Sedona and those red rocks speak to me, too.

    I believe I'm a visual person but need to put more visuals into my writing.

    Great reminder!


  13. Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

    Marcie, you are so right! How a character feels about the setting strengthens the image for the reader.

    Thank you, Anonymous - the WWP provides extended programs and services for our veterans and works to bring awareness to the issue. Since my time is limited, I can't volunteer that, but I can help bring awareness through my books and otherwise. It's a small thing compared with what our soldiers have given us. :-)

    Hi Kathy -- we all speak from experience. LOL.

    Hi Mary -- I'm a visual person, too. Hence my interest in photography. :-) I see my story like a movie in my head, I feel it as if I were each character. When I read, I like to feel as if I'm living inside the story.

    Barbara -- it's hard to live in Arizona and not appreciate the diversity of landscapes that we have here, isn't it. I love your books and the small town settings that you convey so well. :-)

    Happy New Year!