CNF 101: Setting Vs. Scene
I met a friend recently to do a trail run along the Huron River. The river isn’t far from my home – just a right turn at the “The Big House,” the University of Michigan’s football stadium, a five-minute drive down Main Street, and into the woods I was.
That first paragraph was setting, an important ingredient in storytelling. However, setting is the swirl of olive oil or pat of butter that you put in the skillet. It is not the sliced onions, chopped carrots and celery you toss in next that sizzle and brighten up the kitchen. It is not the hot pepper flakes, the salt and pepper that give a little kick to what you are eating. Setting is the base for scene, and with scene, you are not only allowing your readers to stand somewhere, you are giving them a chance to feel something. Scene ought to evoke.
I never tire of driving alongside the football stadium in Ann Arbor. It stands silent on Stadium Drive these winter days, but the marks of the noise and the crowd and the excitement pulse from its walls: the iron entrance gates, the giant “M” I can see from just about anywhere in my town, the sky boxes empty but standing tall and with a view for the winning pass, the break-away touch down, the quarterback sack. This place waits in anticipation for the maize and blue boys to show up and live out a dream while we watch and yell and cheer, because we know that bringing a dream forth takes valiant effort.
The morning I ran was my first run of the year. I was tired of running the same old routes, and when my friend suggested running on trails, I was intrigued. Maybe the dirt, rocks, and tree roots, maybe the gurgling of the river beside me, would distract me from the monotony of running.
I was also a little anxious. I’m an introvert. This is a rather new friendship. Running is hard. Small talk is harder. I’d have to do both at the same time. What if she was too fast for me to keep up with? Were we supposed to talk the entire time? What if we ran out of things to say? What if I couldn’t talk and run? Running has always been my way of proving to myself that I can do hard things: mother, write, successfully follow a Martha Stewart recipe for lasagna. I didn’t want to fail – at running, at a chance to deepen a friendship.
I was the first to arrive at our meeting spot, and since the day was clear and warm for January in Michigan, I stepped out of the car to enjoy the sun. Looking around, I realized I’d been here before. Sometime in the summer, my daughters, Hadley and Harper and I packed lunches and spent the morning hiking around this area. The dirt path we took often came close to the river, and each time Harper, my youngest, would get as close as she could, while Hadley – then about to start middle school – stayed behind, uninterested. There was a group of kids ahead of us – loud and rowdy and enjoying the day - and Hadley watched, her body totally facing them. I inhaled and smelled the fish in the river. I swatted at a swarm of gnats. I watched Hadley watch the group.
The three of us ate lunch at the end of a dock that we shared with a few sunbathers.
“Can we swim?” Harper asked, pushing her glasses up her nose.
“Harper, no,” Hadley said, rolling her eyes. “We don’t have suits.”
Harper looked at Hadley like she was someone she used to know. She shrugged, then stepped closer to the water. The dock shifted underneath us, and Hadley took hold of her sister.
“It’s OK,” I said, gently, putting a hand on Hadley’s shoulder and for a moment the three of us were still, and linked and the sun beat down on us and the current in the river was invisible, though I knew it was there: deep and strong and moving fast towards larger bodies of water.
I thought of that day while I waited for my friend and looked at the place my daughters and I once spent a few hours. When I’m with my girls, I see the world through their eyes; their personalities. Often because of this, my perspective is fresh and vivid but what I see is in part defined by how Hadley and Harper see the world. I don’t mind, and in fact enjoy what they bring to our adventures. But looking at the river, the dock, the trail I’d soon run on, I realized that I had a chance to see this part of the world for myself. I could decide what I liked and what I didn’t like.
To be without the girls, to be by myself, was thrilling and scary and I jogged in place to shake off the shiver from the wind coming off the river and from the opportunity and responsibility to see the world as me.
“I’m so excited!” my friend screamed, slamming her car door.
I turned and smiled. “Me, too!” I said, pushing the bill of my hat up a tad. I wanted to see everything on this run. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
“You ready?” she asked, meeting me at the beginning of the trail.
“I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The first step in creating scene is noticing where you are. Start with the basics: sights, sounds, smells. Are there other people with you? Who are they, and what are they doing? What are they talking about? Jot that down on a piece of paper. Next, take note of how you feel, and what you are thinking. Finally, intertwine the two – if this is a happy moment, how can you express that through smell? If you are stressed or sad, what do you hear that shows that?
Another exercise is to keep a “setting/scene” page in your journal. As you read blog posts, essays, books (including children’s books), write down sentences and phrases that evoke something within that story’s setting.