RU Contributor Rayne Hall returns with a post on things you should consider when writing outdoor scenes.
If your scene takes place outdoors, the location can enrich the plot. The characters may appear or feel small in the vast landscape, helpless, overwhelmed and lost. Nature—sometimes unpredictable, sometimes inevitable—shapes events.
Outdoors settings often work well for:
- Love scenes (for example, the doomed loves meet on the windswept moor)
- Battles (for example, two medieval armies clash in the blistering desert heat).
- Quests (for example, the hero must find the hermit who lives in the forest),
- Explorations (for example, the archaeologists excavating an ancient temple)
- Searches (for example, the police team with dogs searching for a body in the woods)
- Climax scenes (for example, the hero and villain have a final showdown on the cliff edge)
What’s the weather like?
For an outdoors scene, make sure you involve the weather, and show how it affects the characters and the actions:
Which direction does the wind come from? How strong is it? What’s the temperature like? Does the rain hit the PoV from the front or from behind? How does the weather affect the character – does the hail sting her cheeks, is water sloshing in her shoes and creeping up her socks, does sweat trickle down her armpits?
What does the sky look like?
Describe its colour—if possible in more imaginative ways than ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ and the pattern of clouds. Be creative, because descriptions of the sky can serve to establish the PoV’s mood and may even foreshadow events.
Where’s the sun?
Where does the sun stand in the sky—in what direction, and how high? How sharp and how long are the shadows? How bright or sparse is the sunlight? What hue does the sunlight give to the surroundings—does it gild everything with a warm glow, does it create stark contrasts? Describe if something glints, gleams or sparkles in the light.
The location of the sun and the quality of the sunlight not only conjure atmosphere, but give clues to the season and the time of the day. In the morning, the light tends to be cool and clear, showing everything in bright colours with crisp outlines. Around noon and early afternoon, the light is intense and harsh, with very short shadows, and everything looks washed-out and pale. In the late afternoon, the light becomes softer, warmer, dipping everything in a golden glow, and the shadows lengthen. Sunset brings magnificent colour effects. (Note: these effects can vary depending on where in the world the story takes place.
What’s the ground like?
Is the asphalt dotted white with seagull droppings, or black with old chewing gum? Are the paving-slabs cracked, lichen-encrusted or worn smooth? What sounds do the PoV’s footsteps make? Is the lawn shorn short, or tangled with weeds? Is the ploughed field so soggy that clumps of clay soil attach themselves to the walker’s boots, or is it baked hard in the dry heat?
In urban locations, what kind of rubbish lies on the ground—empty beer cans, used condoms, or apple cores? What kind of graffiti are sprayed on the walls?
What kind of plants grow?
What trees grow in the place? Pines, pears or poplars? Are they winter-bare, verdant with young leaves, laden with fruit, or gilded with autumn? Tall or dwarfing, sparse or lush, stunted from continued severe winds or crippled by an overzealous gardener’s pruning shears?
How are the lawns and gardens kept? Do tulips stand in orderly rows, or do weeds choke the gardens? What are the weeds—brambles with their thorny tentacles, sycamore seedlings plotting to turn the garden into a dense wood in a few short years, or dandelions cheerfully resisting the gardener’s strict regime?
What sounds are created by the environment?
Cars humming/roaring/whining past? Leaves rustling overhead? Twigs breaking as an unseen animal steps on them? The outdoors is never completely silent. If you want to emphasise a sense of silence, do it by describing a faraway noise (for example, the distant howl of a coyote).
What animals can be seen or heard?
Mentioning an animal brings life to a scene. Is there a dog splashing in the brook, a cat lazing on the low wall, or an owl hooting in a distance? Perhaps a heavily-laden donkey plods past, or a horse clip-clops down the lane. Do birds twitter, chirp, screech?
What does the place smell of?
Outdoor scenes need smells, unless it is very cold. Smells are great at evoking a sense of the place, and a single sentence about smells achieves more than a whole paragraph of visual descriptions. What does the air smell of? Bonfire smoke? Lilies in bloom? Freshly mowed grass? Petrol fumes? The warmer the temperature, the more intense the smells.
How do people move?
The weather and temperature affect the pace and purpose of movement – for your story’s characters as well as for everyone else.
If it’s cold, people move fast, with their hands in their pockets. They don’t linger, and they avoid gestures. They don’t do anything outdoors unless they have no choice. Individuals who have to spend time outdoors, may rub their hands, stomp their feet or hug themselves for warmth.
If it’s raining, they move fast, usually leaning forward, with their heads bent.
In warm weather, people linger. There may be groups milling about.
In hot weather, movements are slow, languid. People don’t work outdoors unless they have no choice. Individuals may choose to hang out in the full sun, while many seek the shade of walls or trees.
Mistakes to avoid
Don’t write outdoors scenes without specific weather. They lack realism.
Don’t forget to show the sun (or the clouds hiding the sun), the wind (even if it’s only a faint breeze) and the temperature.
- Go somewhere out of doors—take your dog for a walk in a municipal park, or sunbathe on the beach, or have a cup of tea in a pavement cafe—and observe the light, sounds, smells, wind, weather, ground and sky. Also watch how people are moving. Jot down your observations and add them to your Settings Description Bank.
- For the outdoors scene you want to write or revise, decide the location, season, time of the day and weather. Write one sentence each about the sunlight, ground, sky, weather and temperature, to insert into the scene.
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Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on the Sulu Vivid Settingssouth coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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