Posted On February 24, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Outdoor Scenes by Rayne Hall

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 Rayne Hall Photosparse 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.

Assignments

  1. 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.
  2. 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 theSulu Settings outdoors birdsong capture 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.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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14 Responses to “Writing Outdoor Scenes by Rayne Hall”

  1. Afternoon Rayne!

    I always forget the smell in scenes…drives me crazy. I have to go back in and add it, it simply doesn’t occur to me when writing!

    Your “how do people move” really is an eye opener as well…I’m writing a winter scene and sure enough people are moving fast, but I don’t think that comes across…something I need to pay a bit more attention to.

    Thanks much!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 24, 2016, 2:29 pm
    • Hi Carrie,
      Sometimes we see the scene clearly in our mind, with all the detail including how people move, but we fail to convey this image to the reader.
      Often all that’s required is a change of word. For example, if people are walking fast, replacing the word ‘walked’ with ‘strode’ (or ‘marched’, or ‘stomped’ or ‘hurried’) is enough to convey a brisk pace.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | February 24, 2016, 3:36 pm
  2. Hi Rayne,

    I agree with Carrie. Good point about describing body language in different types weather situations. I’m big on floral and fauna in outdoor scenes, which in some cases requires research on native species.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 24, 2016, 2:44 pm
  3. Another great post, Rayne. I enjoy when you visit RU and share your writing tips.

    Posted by Mercy | February 24, 2016, 4:54 pm
    • Hi Mercy,
      I posted my reply wrongly – as a general comment instead of a reply to yours – so I’m posting it again. Hopefully this time I’ll do it right. 🙂
      I’ll be back once a month until July at least. Each time, I’ll look at a particular kind of scene and how to write it. What kind of scenes would you like learn about? I’m thinking of opening scenes (start of a novel), black moment scenes, climax scenes, argument scenes, scary scenes, fight scenes, captivity scenes, chase and escape scenes… What would be most helpful to you?
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | February 27, 2016, 1:10 am
  4. Hi Mercy,
    I’ll be back once a month until July at least. Each time, I’ll look at a particular kind of scene and how to write it. What kind of scenes would you like learn about? I’m thinking of opening scenes (start of a novel), black moment scenes, climax scenes, argument scenes, scary scenes, fight scenes, captivity scenes, chase and escape scenes… What would be most helpful to you?
    Rayne

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | February 25, 2016, 1:37 am
  5. This was very informative. I use a lot of outdoor scenes in my writing and now I see, I don’t describe them nearly enough. The only one I seem to have trouble describing is the English Regency Romance novels I’m writing. Would it be a good idea if I described more of what I see in the scenery? I know I have to do research in order to get the time period right, but when is it too much describing the outdoor scenes?

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 23, 2016, 1:46 pm
    • Testing Testing Testing

      I wrote a detailed reply earlier today, but got an error message. 🙁 So now I want to check if it works before I reply again.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 9:01 am
    • Trying again. Let’s see if it works this time.

      Hi Christine,

      As a rule of thumb, give as much or as little description of the scenery as your point-of-view character would observe at that moment. This varies greatly depending on the situation that character is in.

      Lets say your English Regency Romance heroine has arrived in Brighton on her first ever visit to the seaside. As she promenades along the seafront, she’ll observe the sea surface sparkling like diamonds on crinkled silk, she’ll hear the rustling of waves brushing against pebbles, and the seagulls screeching overhead.

      But if she’s running for her life, she won’t observe the scenery. The diamond sparkles of the sea surface will go unnoticed by her, so you shouldn’t describe them either.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 11:41 am
  6. This comes to prove that I personally didn’t pay much attention on details while describing outdoor scenes. I always mention the season, presence or absence of the sun but usually do not go any further.
    Like Christine asked before me, how do you detect that you are describing too much of outdoor?
    By the about the love scenes in outdoors. The most memorable for me since has been the scene from “1984”, where Winston and Julia meet in the woods.

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 24, 2016, 4:16 pm
    • Hi Lilit,
      How much description is too much? If it’s not plausible that the point-of-view character would observe those details, then it’s too much.
      A useful approach is to weave small bits of description – a sentence here, a paragraph there – into the action.
      Long chunks of description tend to bore readers, so it’s best to break them up and use several short descriptions instead.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 26, 2016, 2:46 am
  7. “Outdoors. Bugs and sweat and the sun pressing down on you like a heavy weight in a brassy yellow sky. In my country people carry umbrellas in the sunshine. Driblets of shade provide refuge from nature’s hot, damp embrace. If we were meant to be outdoors God wouldn’t have given us airconditioning.”

    Whee, this is fun! 🙂

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 24, 2016, 5:08 pm

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