10 Tips for Bringing a Scene to Life (2020 update)

Years ago, I wrote an article on bringing a scene to life—and then I did an exercise based upon my own article. 

Here are the bare bones of that article. These are techniques and 10 “Tips for Bringing a Scene to Life”

1. Use “Resonators”

Especially at the beginning of a tale, use “resonators” to better tie into your audience’s subconscious. 

A resonator is a word or image that gains power simply because your reader has seen it before. 

Resonators are often words that identify your piece as belonging to a particular genre, such as fantasy, romance, or horror. They are part of the secret language that is used within a particular genre to give the writing more power by referring to previous works written in that genre.

Thus, as I mentioned before, in romance, a resonator might be the word “grey,” as in “Heathcliff’s grey eyes bored into hers, stripping her naked and piercing her soul.”  But a resonator may also be a word that carries strong resonance with real-life experience.  For example, everyone who goes to a school might feel a sense of nostalgia when one mentions the “silent halls rich with the scent of layers upon layers of wax that have hardened for eons upon the floor.”  

Some words that resonate arouse a sense of danger in a reader—words like “smothering,” “blood,” and “cold,” while others help awaken some other profound emotion. In some books, a particular thing or person may gain resonance with the reader when it is used as a symbol for other things.

Here’s an exercise on using resonators.  In the following opening paragraphs from my novel Wizardborn, consider the nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs and then see which ones you think have resonance—either by harking back to the fantasy genre, to real life, or by creating a sense of danger.  Circle the resonators that you see.

Stars blazed in a cold blank sky, as if intent on igniting heaven.  Raj Ahten raced in the Hest Mountains above Mystarria, sweat drenching him, his blood crusting from wounds at his knee and chest.  His shirt of black scale mail, torn from battle, rang like shackles with every step.  

The trail twisted over the torturous ridges and through the crevasses, curling among black pines that struggled up to bristle like spears through rock and a thin crust of snow.  

It was a bitter night, and though he detected no foes, Raj Ahten clung to his war hammer.  After the rout at Castle Carris, reavers had fled blindly in every direction.  Twice Raj Ahten had stumbled upon the monsters in the wood and brought them down.

Wolves howled in the shadowed pines.  They’d caught his blood-scent, and now loped behind, trying to match his pace.  Raj Ahten could smell his own vital juices, cloying amid the competing scents of snow, ice, stone, and pine.


2. Don’t be afraid to overwrite in your first draft

(you can always delete the excess). 

3. Using precise language is essential.

That means that if you are describing a person, consider using his name.  If you want your reader to envision a pine forest, let them know that it is a pine forest, not just a forest, lest they imagine oaks or palms.

4. Appeal to all of the senses—sight

(don’t just describe the colors of things, but also their textures),

sound, smell, taste, touch

(hot/cold/wet/dry/firmness/abrasiveness). Don’t forget the sense of passing time.

5. Remember the to be verbs

In order to avoid the use of the to be verbs, consider putting the object being described at the front of the sentence, followed by a strong verb, followed by the thing that is acted upon.

For example, rather than saying “The day was so cold that bits of ice hung in the air, driving into Theron’s face as he plunged into the storm,” you would say, “Needles of ice drove into Theron’s face as he plunged through the storm.”   

You may often want to:

6. Focus tightly on your viewpoint character.  

Describe the scene from his or her emotional perspective.  For example, in describing a spring day for a young man who is sure that he has just fallen in love, I might describe the vivid greens, dwell on flowers, or birdsong, or the comfortable warmth.   The same detail for a young man who is jilted might be described as more mocking of his situation, and we might dwell more upon the bones of leaves that lie thick beneath a maple tree rather than the purple crocuses thrusting up through them. 

7. Give the object you’re describing a past, present, and future.  

For example, when describing a city, you might describe in a sentence how it had begun: “The Keep at Tillock hunched on the red rocks overlooking the Rangell River, supposedly built to secure the only ford within sixty miles.”   You then describe how it looks today.  “It had fallen into disuse when Gaborn’s grandfather was young. . . . ” You then describe how it will look in the future.   “Captain,” Gaborn warned the garrison commander, “Come week’s end your men will raise the earthen wall here on the west bank by sixteen feet . . .”  

Here are some more examples of describing things in motion from My novel Wizardborn:

After the storm, the small animals of the field came out to dry, as was their wont.  Mice scurried to the mouths of their burrows and dared the hawks as they sat pawing the wet that clung to their fur.  Their black eyes blinked against the sun; whiskers twitched as they scented the damp earth.  

From every thicket on the heath, from every gorse bush and from beneath the boughs of every winding oak, the birds emerged. Sparrows like windblown leaves flitted among the hedges.   Black grackles strutted on the hard pan, the rising sun daubing their oiled wings with rainbow hues so that they glimmered like shards of live coal.   The sodden air teemed with birdsong—whistles and trills and querulous twitters—making far more clamor than the single flight of mourning doves weaving across the sky could account for.By noon the birds would fall silent, Iome knew, but for the moment she felt persuaded to celebrate with them. 

Sir Borenson doffed his iron helm and rode to the orchard eagerly, thinking to fill it with fruit. From a distance, the pears at the treetops looked gravid—the sun had bronzed many and bestowed a few with gleaming flecks of gold.

But as he neared he found that the orchard had fallen into disuse.  Leafy branches obscured limbs heavy with deadwood.  The few pears near ground were still green and hard, pitted and scarred by the high winds that pounded down from the Alcairs in early summer.  And as he drew rein, he could tell that even the pears at the treetop were not enticing to anything other than a few worms that called them home.  Perhaps only want had made the fruits seem large.

In another two weeks, the air here would sweeten with the scent of ripening pears.

Today the old orchard smelled only of leaf and wood.

8. Signal to your readers how the protagonist feels

In addition to describing how things change over time, make sure that you signal to your readers how the protagonist feels about the thing described.  Please note that feelings might also be in transition.  

9. Especially when you open a story, you are trying to put things in motion. 

One way to do that is to describe things—even inanimate things—in motion by creating metaphors.  A writer might have trees “march down out of the hills.” Buildings can “huddle” or “lunge” or “straddle.” By the same token, if you’re trying to create a sense of rest in the story, particularly near the ending, make sure that you describe your settings and even creatures and people in motion as being still.   For example, a hawk can “hang in the sky.”

10. The setting must intrude in every scene.  

Often, new writers create conversations where two people talk, and never give reference to anything other than their words.  But a conversation can be interrupted by the sound of a dog barking, or your character might notice the smell of a nearby orange tree in blossom, or your character may be in the process of doing something, such as cleaning a weapon.   

But the world must intrude into every scene, every conversation, no matter how briefly.  And if the scene is fairly long, you’ll want it to intrude in a number of ways that your reader (and your characters) won’t anticipate.   For example, in describing a medieval hostel, I might have such unexpected incidents as.  “A mouse came racing from the pantry, past the roaring fire, chased by a yellow cat.” Or “A fat trader had stacked so much wood on the fire that the heat from it would have blistered a blacksmith; yet he thrust his wet boots next to the coals and sat there contentedly as steam curled up from his soles.”

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” 

—E. M. Forster

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