A Novel Approach: Setting A Scene

August 14, 2010

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When I discuss the differences between short stories and novels, the stark contract in setting scenes tends to come front and center.  I have launched Tip of The Iceberg and Other Stories, and have also sent in my submission to the Iowa Short Story Award.  I’ll continue to write short stories every friday, but a major focus in the next 3-6 months will be renewing focus on my novel, Casting Stones.

I’ll definitely need to alter my mindset and spend more time focusing on the details of a scene.  Today’s article is really more for my benefit than for yours.  The scene I am delving into could be covered in a single sentence in a short story – Kirsten spent the afternoon reading Moby Dick and ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I’m going to take this one sentence and expand it into several hundred words that will allow you to gain greater insights into the characters and the scene.  Honestly, it’s not a very action-packed scene – and therein lies the challenge.

Warning: nothing of any importance happens in this scene – it is merely a writing exercise.


The daily assault of the sun’s gentle rays had long ago caused the curtains to fade from virgin white to a yellowed tint.  It was late afternoon, and the rays peeked through the window once again and flooded the living room in a gentle glow.

Kirsten sat down the glass of iced tea and took a seat in the antique rocking chair.  As it squeaked in response to the rocking, she opened the cover of a dog-eared copy of Moby Dick.  She stopped for a moment to ponder the first line – “Call me Ishmael.”  She found this to be an interesting name.  She had never actually known anyone named Ishmael.  She remembered Ismael Valdez with the Dodgers and remembered that her dad had mentioned Rocket Ismail returning kicks for Notre Dame.  But never an Ishmael.

Kirsten pushed her glasses back up on her nose and delved deeper into the protagonist of Melville’s classic.  A few of her friends were school teachers, and many of them held summer jobs – working retail, carpentry, and on farms.  Kirsten couldn’t imagine any of them spending time on a whaling ship.  Ishmael certainly had an adventurous spirit.

Kirsten was fully engrossed in the adventures of adventures of Ishmael, Ahab, and Queequeg when she suddenly realized that the room had grown dark.  It had been several hours since she had begun reading, and her stomach began to cry out in agony.  She rose from the rocking chair, slipped on her shoes and began her pursuit of dinner.

Kirsten’s scarlet stilettos drummed out a melodic series of clicks as she strode purposefully across the hardwood floor. When she arrived at the mahogany table in the dining room, she flipped the switch on the ancient lamp. The compact fluorescent bulb fluttered for a short moment before realizing its full potential and bathing the room in light.

Kirsten reached above her head and opened the cupboard door.  One of the screws from the hinge fell to the counter top with a clatter.  Kirsten sighed.  She loved the old house, including the beautiful glass-front cupboards, but it seemed that one thing or another was constantly in need of maintenance.  She grabbed a screw driver from the junk drawer, slid the foot stool into place, and fastened the screw.  She opened and closed the door several times, assuring herself that the screw was tightly in place.

Kirsten took a dinner plate from the lower shelf and had to step on her tip toes to grab a glass from the top shelf.  She wondered why she hadn’t gotten one down while she had been on the step stool.  Some of the features of this house were certainly not built for someone as petite as Kirsten.

To her great delight, she discovered that the breadbox still held a single croissant.  She thanked her lucky stars that she wouldn’t have to settle for the bland alternative of whole wheat bread.

When Kirsten ducked her head inside the refrigerator, she was disappointed to see that Sam had eaten the last of the ham.  She stuck out her tongue and resigned herself to turkey.  She was happy to see that Sam had at least left a single slice of Swiss cheese behind.  She inhaled the aroma of the cheese.  Kirsten could be frugal with many of her purchases, but not with cheese.  The difference in flavor between a high grade of Swiss cheese and a bargain basement substitute was incalculable.

Kirsten grabbed the carton of milk from the bottom shelf and filled the glass nearly to the brim.  She replaced the carton, closed the refrigerator door, and carried the plate and glass to the table.

She took a long drink of the milk before taking a big bite from the sandwich.  The house was quiet, except for the faraway sounds of crickets chirping and the occasional creak as the house continued the century long process of settling onto the foundation.  Kirsten missed Sam when he was traveling on business, but she didn’t miss the ever-present blare of the television set that plague the house when he was around.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Martin Kelly
    Aug 16, 2010 @ 07:22:36

    Very nice. You have established a very calm, comfortable atmosphere. Counter to your warning, a lot has happened in this writing. You have built up at least part of three personalities; Kirsten, Sam and the house. It is the little details, inserted as just part of the description that build the scene.


  2. Peter Stockwell
    Aug 17, 2010 @ 10:52:00

    Good as a writing exercise, but if I was using it in a story I would cut it by half.


  3. kosmo
    Aug 17, 2010 @ 11:19:47

    @ Peter – I completely agree. It was just an exercise to work on my scene building. This sort of scene wouldn’t generally receive so many words.


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