When I was in film school, one of the most difficult things for me was learning how to describe the setting in my screenplays. The first time I turned in a draft of my script, my professor basically marked all the pages in bold red pen with the capital letters SIFYN.
SIFYN? SIFYN??? I rushed up to him after class, “Please, Sensei, tell me what I did wrong. What’s SIFYN??”
He stared at me with implacable eyes, “Save it for your novel.”
Thus, my little grasshopper self, learned the ways of screenplay setting.
When I started writing fiction, I was so used to writing setting in screenplay style (minimal) that I kept getting the note, “Give us more details! Ground us more fully in the setting.”
I really couldn’t win for losing.
So. Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years for describing setting in both books and screenplays.
While establishing setting in fiction and memoir, one approach is to think about using all your five senses. You have a bit more room to explore setting in prose, and can include not just what the character sees and hears, but what they can smell, taste and touch. You can also include the character’s thoughts.
Here’s an example….
Lisa stepped outside and lit up a cigarette. Her tongue was burnt by the ash of her constant smoking, but she didn’t care. She sat down on an old battered lounge chair, feeling the morning dampness from the cushion, and stared out at her once beautiful backyard.
Several diseased Palm trees bent like old men over the alley behind her property, and the fence, once painted pristine white, now peeled in long sheets, leaning dangerously to the right. A tiny big wheel toy, one wheel missing, tilted in the overgrown weeds.
The air smelled rotten and Lisa breathed in the smoke, to mask the scent.
A police helicopter, low and loud, swooped across the sky.
She started to cry.
Now, I’m not saying this is good writing, but notice how I’ve used all five senses, plus interior reflection (“she didn’t care”), in this little scene?
Establishing setting in a screenplay is much simpler. You can only write what the reader sees and hears, and must quickly “sketch” the environment with just a couple of images.
Here’s an example of the same setting described in screenplay form…
Lisa steps outside. Depressed, she sits down, lights up a cigarette and stares at her backyard.
Palm trees bend over her bedraggled garden, and a white fence, paint peeling, leans dangerously to the right. A tiny big wheel toy, one wheel missing, tilts in the overgrown weeds.
A police helicopter, low and loud, swoops across the sky.
She starts to cry.
See how we only describe what we see and hear? I use the word ‘depressed’ to reveal how she appears to the viewer as she sits down.
In both examples, notice that the landscape is used to trigger the emotion in the scene. Your use of setting should always be in service of moving the story forward.
TAKE ACTION! If you’re describing setting in your novel or memoir, feel free to use all five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.) You can also delve into the perceptions and thoughts of your characters. Again, you don’t want to spend too much time describing the environment, the setting exists to serve WHAT IS HAPPENING in the scene (the action/emotion.) If writing a screenplay, remember to write only what you see and hear. Find the most powerful images and sounds to reveal the environment, and get to the action that moves the story forward quickly.
Setting can be a hugely important part of world building both in prose and screenplays. Don’t get bogged down in describing the setting too much. Or too little (screenwriters turned novelists!)
Let’s see your characters interacting with the setting in a way that moves the story forward.
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