21 Writing Prompts for Setting a Scene in Your Novel

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Man setting dining room table

When you’re writing (or rewriting) a scene, do you ever get the feeling you just don’t have enough to say?

Sure, there’s the action–but what about all the extra bits meant to flesh out your story?

While I don’t encourage overwriting for the sake of word count, meaningful details can help you establish setting and atmosphere.

Last week, I sat down with John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea–a book that features prose I admire–and took careful notes about how the author managed to effectively set certain scenes. Here’s just one of its many beautiful passages :

I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No soil marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again (Picador, 2005).

From this passage, I know the narrator is remembering something unpleasant from his past, and the imagery foreshadows what happens later in the story. Immediately, I get a sense of the atmosphere the author is trying to convey.

Based on my reading, the following are 21 writing prompts for creating depth in your prose:

  1. Where does the scene take place?
  2. What do the immediate surroundings look like?
  3. What time of day is it?
  4. Can you intensify the scene with meaningful similes, metaphors or personification?
  5. How does the point-of-view character feel emotionally?
  6. What do they feel physically?
  7. What do the characters hear?
  8. What do those sounds remind them of?
  9. What do their voices sound like?
  10. What do the characters facial expressions look like?
  11. What are they physically doing at this moment?
  12. What are the characters saying, or not saying?
  13. What are they remembering?
  14. What can they smell?
  15. What do those smells remind them of?
  16. Can your characters taste anything?
  17. What is the conflict in this scene?
  18. How does the scene’s conflict reflect the overall conflict of the story?
  19. What do your characters want at this moment?
  20. Are there any opportunities to foreshadow future events in this scene?
  21. How do your overall themes connect to this scene?

Obviously, you don’t want to incorporate all 21 of these ideas into each and every scene, or your reader would become exhausted, quickly. Choose only the most relevant details to include, and make them count.

What other prompts can you share to help us set the scene?

{ 7 comments }

Julie Jarnagin April 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

This is going to be so helpful. Thank you for sharing!

LydiaSharp April 6, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Great list, Suzannah! I’m bookmarking this page for future reference.
And congrats on making the finals for Writer Unboxed! :)

Suzannah April 6, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Thanks Lydia, and congrats to you, too! I’m eager to find out who got the top spot :)

write-brained April 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

GREAT list–bookmarking it now!

slamdunk April 10, 2010 at 3:44 am

Having a checklist like this is a useful tool–thanks for sharing.

Wendy A.M. Prosser April 18, 2010 at 8:41 am

Thanks for this. I have copied the list onto one of those sticky note thingies on my PC desktop and will refer to it often!

Nina Badzin April 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Excellent!! Printed it out and put it by my desk. Thank you!

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