Create scenes to attract readers to your story

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

We traditionally think of scene setting as the territory of fiction writers, especially novelists.

Novelists have the advantage of writing 100,000 words or more. Most of us journalists have to do what we do in 600 words or less.

Setting scenes gives your readers a vivid sense of where and when an event took place and anchors the action and dialogue, writes South African editor and writer Jordan, who prefers a single word name. When your readers are able to picture your scenes, it helps immerse them in your story. 

Here is an example by Marcus Walker and Carrie Keller-Lynn in The Wall Street Journal.

IBBUTZ HANITA, Israel— Drizzle covered the forest. Dense mist rolled through the hills. Israeli 155mm artillery shells whistled close overhead, replying to the crunch of a mortar round fired by nearby Hezbollah. 

“It’s quieter than usual,” said Lt. Col. Dotan Razili of the Israeli army, sheltering from the rain in this rural community 300 yards from the Lebanese border. “It makes me suspicious.”  (63 words)

Another option is to open with what is strange, unusual, mystifying or odd about a place, Jordan writes. Try starting an article with scene-setting that shows some of the ways a place is unique.

Toni Morrison wrote this sorrowful sense of place in her Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved:

Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinatti horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless.(29 words)

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver talks to her readers in The Poisonwood Bible.

First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves.(53 words)

Here is a passage from one of my essays:

September heat had reached 104°, topping August’s hottest days that reached only102°. It had not rained for two weeks. Weather forecasters were predicting the beginning of a drought. Heat waves shimmered about the sidewalks. We joked that the rivers and creeks weren’t boiling yet but we could fry eggs on the hot highway asphalt. (54 words)

You can do that in a non-fiction feature story or article. These examples should give you ideas for creating your own scenes.

Next: Build your readers expectations 

If our reporters wrote better it would make editing easier and make our articles sing. Unfortunately we lack the time to coach them. Here’s a secret. Help them with a copy of writing coach Jerry Bellune’s The Art of Compelling Writing, Volume 2, only $9.99 at Amazon.com.

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