Good morning! RU Contributor Rayne Hall is back with her first post of 2017.
- Give the reader an idea how large the room is – not in yards and meters, but with creative descriptions and perhaps comparisons. “The studio held a narrow bed, a chair and a bookcase, with little room to walk between them.” “His apartment was smaller than my garden shed.” “The kitchen sprawled across more space than my apartment.” “The villa’s bathroom was as big as the school’s swimming pool.”
- Instead of describing everything, show a few telling details, such as the state of the houseplants (Dried-up brown leaves? Flourishing lush green? Infested with blackfly and scale?) and the floor (wooden planks, bare concrete, a threadbare carpet, synthetic fleeces, ethnic rugs?)
- Insert visual descriptions of the room in several places throughout the scene instead of all at the beginning. The point-of-view character who spends some time in this room will notice details bit by bit, as he looks around.
- When the point-of-view character (PoV) gets bored with the conversation, you can indicate this by describing details of the interior. This implies that she’s looking around instead of paying attention to what is said.
- The best place to insert smells is the moment the PoV enters the room, because the human brain perceives smells most clearly when they’re new. Mention a smell or combination of smells: cigarette smoke and unwashed socks, disinfectant and bleach, homebaked bread and beeswax, joss sticks and cannabis, hairspray and nail varnish remover. Smells create an immediate impression of the place and create an image in the reader’s mind, even if you don’t provide many visuals.
- The furnishings and decor serve to reveal something about the person who chose them. How wealthy or poor is he? How orderly, tidy, clean, organised? Does she like stark simplicity or many knicknacks, old-fashioned cosy comforts or state-of-the-art functionality? The books on the shelf show the owner’s taste. Mention a couple of titles. Does she read Wuthering Heights, How To Lose Weight Fast, Kritik Der Reinen Vernunft, or Fifty Shades of Grey?
- The decor can also hold subtle clues that will play a role later on in the story. By showing a shelf of shooting contest trophies, you signal that the guy who lives here is an expert marksman.
- What kind of noises can the PoV hear while he is in the room? Perhaps there’s a faint hum from a laptop, a steady tick-tock from the grandfather clock, a dripping water tap, footsteps from the flat above, and the flush and gurgle of the toilet on the other side of the wall. Insert noises whenever you want to emphasise tension, and also to indicate that the characters are not talking.
- What’s the weather like outside? This affects how the characters arrive. (Do they take off their muddy boots on entering, hang up their dripping coats, pull their chairs close to the radiator, clutch their cold-stiffened fingers around the coffee cups or gulp down ice-cold drinks?) The weather also provides interesting background noises, especially rain and wind.
- What’s the temperature like, and where does it come from? Is the room heated with a log fire, with a whirring fan heater, or with the old type wall heater where the user has to insert coins to keep it going? Does the room have air conditioning, or does a cooling draft come from the open windows? How comfortable is the temperature for the PoV?
- How dim or well-lit is this room? Where does the light come from – large windows, candles, a ceiling lamp, or indirect lightning? Is it soft or harsh, warm or cold, bright or dim? Describing the colour, quality and source of light creates atmosphere. Mention the source of light early in the scene.
- Indoors, people tend to be more relaxed, because they instinctively feel safer. They need not worry about animal predators, human muggers, or extreme weather. Show this in their body language and the way they interact. (Depending on the plot, don’t give them the chance to relax for long, but expose them to tension and dangers.)
- Let the characters interact with their environment. This adds a sense of realism. For example, you can show how a character leans back in his chair, another perches on the edge of hers, a third pulls the chair closer to the fire. Someone may rearrange the tapestry cushions for comfort, while another wipes a spillage off the polished glass table. Unless they have met purely to talk or relax, give them some work to do. They may repair the floor, wash the dishes our search the attic for treasure.
- Voices sound louder indoors than out of doors, because wind doesn’t carry the sound away and there are fewer background noises.
- For restaurant scenes, use description to make this an individual place, not a generic eatery. A sentence listing several smells establishes what kind of food they serve. Describe the surface of the tables—starched white linen, shiny metal, cracked plastic or scarred wood? How are the menus presented? Leather-bound books, laminated sheets sticky to the touch, or a chalkboard with spelling errors above the counter? What clothes do the servers wear—jeans and t-shirts, black dresses and lace-edged aprons, or miniskirts and cleavage-baring tops? Include background noises—the hiss of the coffee maker, the rattling of cutlery, the bubbling of hot grease. If there’s any music, mention the volume and style. You can also mention snatches of overheard conversations from the neighbouring tables.
- If the scene takes place in a workspace, such as an office, workshop or factory, show the tools of the trade, preferably in motion. Mention smells. Almost every workplace has its characteristic smells—resin, leather, wax, grease, diesel, disinfectant, printer’s ink, coffee. If work is under way, describe sounds—machines rattling, hammers clanking, printers whirring, monitors beeping.
- When people gather indoors, they are typically closer together than outdoors, because the four walls keep them confined. It’s not so easy to stroll away from an indoor gathering as outside. When a character leaves, everyone notices. People think twice about leaving, because they’ll have to offer an excuse and say goodbye, thus drawing attention to themselves. This proximity can intensify tensions, something you can use in your dialogue.
- Characters may stay together longer than they planned, because of conditions out of doors. Maybe they can’t leave because there’s a violent downpour, or the taxi doesn’t come. This causes a shift in their emotions – perhaps frustration, impatience or embarrassment.
- For interesting plot developments, let one character discover an item that reveals a secret or exposes the owner’s lie. Another way to add interest is if a character arrives late, perhaps someone nobody expected and nobody wants there, but courtesy forces them to tolerate this person’s presence. Or consider a situation where the PoV character wants to leave the room but can’t.
- If it suits your story, you can use the confined space to create a sense of claustrophobia in the PoV and the reader.
- Indoor scenes lend themselves to ‘locked room’ mystery. Everyone can see everyone else, nobody leaves the room without being noticed. Yet at the end of the scene, one of the characters is found murdered. Whodunnit?
Do you want your readers to feel like they’re really there—in the place where the story happens?
Whether you want to enrich stark prose with atmospheric detail, add vibrancy to a dull piece or curb waffling descriptions, this guide can help. Learn how to make your settings intense, realistic, and intriguing.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several 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 south 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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