How this Writer Builds a Set

Chocolate balls in foil wrappers printed to look like eye balls (complete with blue irises and blood shot veins) behind a pair of eyeglasses sitting on a table

Chocolate eyes and classes by net_efekt

I’m a visual writer: I watch a scene play out in my head before I write it. And I’m also a little far-sighted and most of my characters have fuzzy faces.

What I can see in detail, however, are floor plans. I may not be able to see the art on a character’s bedroom wall, but I always know where the closets and bathrooms are. When the scene plays out in my head, it’s not on a green screen with TBD background. All my scenes have sets: four walls, windows, doors, furniture.

I don’t write descriptions of the floor plans (no one would care…or worse, they’d fall asleep), but it’s important for me to know where a character is walking. Having a completely built set helps keep consistency when I visualize scenes. It keeps characters’ actions real and believable.

The back door always leads to the garden, rather than the driveway in one scene and the garden in another.

If a character always paces in his bedroom and I know he’s pacing from the closet to the window, I know that what he sees may change his actions. Perhaps he can see that someone is approaching the house or that someone’s stolen his shoes. It could help with set up for later, a transition to the next scene or pacing the scene in my head.

Some sets are created entirely by my mind, others are cobbled together from places I’ve been but most are complete rip offs of places I’ve been. Julia, for examples, lives in an apartment I used to live in and she grew up in a house my parents used to own. Julia’s cousin lives in an apartment that one of my friends used to rent.

I have trouble working with sets that are created in my mind. Moving around in their space is more awkward. I’ve actually sketched out a mind-created set and found that it was such an odd configuration of rooms that it would never have been built. Did that matter to the story? No, but it did mean that my character spent a lot less time in his apartment because I couldn’t see it properly.

So far, every set my characters have inhabited have been different. I wonder what will happen if (when?) I run out of new places for them to be. Can Julia and some future character really live in the same apartment? Would the rooms feel like they’re haunted? Will I just have to get better at mixing and matching real places or creating new ones?

How important is it for you to know the space your characters are living in? Do you always have a specific place in mind or are you comfortable with scenes playing out with no particular set in mind?

Or, flip that, how important is it for you as a reader to know the layout of the locations?


7 thoughts on “How this Writer Builds a Set

  1. Wow, you must write some fantastic blocking in your pieces! I visualize my scenes to an extent, but not as thoroughly as you. I modestly describe surroundings, but I like to try and emulate the atmosphere of a place with language. For me it’s more about the feel of where they’re at than the actual layout. And more often than not, if there are two people I tend to focus the most on dialogue. But then again, that’s because I consider dialogue as my weak point so I work the hardest on that in any given scene.

    As far as reading goes? It’s all about balance. I like to be able to picture it, but I do enjoy leaving a lot to the imagination. As long as everything important to the story is described, I’m very lax on the rest of the descriptions.

    I really enjoyed your post, and I look forward to exploring your blog. Cheers!

    • Ha! Either my blocking is amazing or my readers are completely lost. That can be the downside of seeing everything and not providing a diagram. I don’t need amazing…I’m just hoping for not completely lost.

      Balance is good. I think readers generally prefer to be build part of the world in their own minds…it helps make it theirs. I hope I don’t take away from that by seeing it so vividly myself.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. My sets are often general unless it’s called for them to be specific. For instance, it’s important for my readers to know that a room is plush, but I don’t usually describe exactly how immediately, instead letting it trickle in as it becomes important. Unless foreshadowing is needed, of course.

  3. bethfinke

    Wow! If you ever lose your day job (God Forbid!) you should go into set design. During your time away from the book tour, I mean.

  4. one of the writers in my group is visual like you sound. she will literally have to see and enact each scene in her mind before she can write it. I am the opposite. I see my scene as it unfolds before me while I write. I need a general idea of what’s happening, and more importantly I need the purpose fo the scene (which sometimes only comes out later), but I don’t spend much time visualizing before I write.

    Actually one of the things that keeps coming back to me in feedback is that readers get confused with my spatial movement – something I have to work on relaying on the page. I know the layout, but I obviously have a hard time tranfering it to page.
    As a reader, I like to only have as much detail as necessary. I normally imagine my own thing anyway, and if there’s too much detail it bogs me down.

    sounds like you have a story in the making about haunted rooms!! 🙂

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