One of the first and most satisfying compliments I received for my novel, Giving Voice to Dawn, was not a nod to my whacky depictions of spirit guide encounters or even a thumbs-up for the depth of the wisdom I shared. It was, instead, an enthusiastic gush regarding my scene descriptions. As nutty, quirky, and visionary as my story is, it was my scene description of real, physical spaces that most enthralled one of my earliest readers.
And why exactly? Because the care I took with my setting scene created a solid, grounded base upon which I could play out my story without causing anxiety in my reader. My most magical passages were grounded in reality. I didn’t pop them in out of the ethers as dream sequences, but layered them in over richly described actual places where somewhat ordinary activity was taking place. For example, about midway through my novel, my protagonist is drawn into a complex vision that takes place while she’s cleaning out the closet in her home office. A whale grabs her ankle and pulls her back through a life review during which she encounters items from her closet that trigger memories. Although I could have pulled this pivotal scene off as a dream sequence, I chose instead to set the office scene, ground the reader in the ordinary activity of clearing out a closet, and then layer the vision on. Once the vision is complete, the protagonist emerges again in the office where she was safely tethered all along.
I took this approach purposefully while writing my novel because I didn’t want to scare off new spiritual seekers. I wanted to avoid plopping them into a world that was unidentifiable and, therefore, “not for them.” This need to make spirituality accessible harkens back to my experience as a kid attending a Catholic church where the entire Mass was spoken in Latin. Jesus quickly became not for me—I mean, we didn’t even speak the same language! I didn’t want to create that same sort of experience for my readers.
Now, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer and you probably know how to set a scene. However, I did want to share some tips that might help you out the next time you’re writing a metaphysical or a Visionary Fiction story that you’d like to firmly ground in the physical plane. So, here’s a collection of my best advice:
Setting a scene in Visionary Fiction
- Commit to Describe the Scenery and Take Your Time.Commit to rich scene description and take the time to richly describe scenes. This might seem trivial, but without the commitment at the get-go, you might find yourself so focused on writing dialogue and moving the story that your scene description becomes secondary.
- On the Flip Side, Know When to Move Along.If you’re not about to introduce a ghost, have a guide pop in, or have a deer saunter through a scene with a message, spare the scene details and move along. Write your scenes with a sense of purpose. For example, one of the chapters of Giving Voice to Dawn opens in the protagonist’s bedroom as she wakes up and gets ready for the day. I don’t describe her bedroom in any detail, choosing instead to allow the reader to imagine it. The chapter is going to move very quickly to an antique shop that I’m going to describe in intimate detail and then sprinkle with magic. I didn’t want the reader bogged down with details and tired of reading scene description before they got to the shop, so purposely limited my description of the bedroom.
- Describe Real Public Places and Name Names.Use known and identifiable locales. Be explicit and share the names of streets, restaurants, subway stations, historical landmarks, parks, stores, etc. Mention little details that those familiar with the locale will immediately recognize and don’t worry that not everyone will pick up on them. Does this take more time and effort? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
- Do Your Research.Once you commit to describing real places, take the time to actually experience them. While you’re on location, take notes, shoot photos, record sounds, describe smells. If you physically can’t visit every location you’d like to use in your story, see what you can find online in the way of virtual tours. I used Google Street View, for example, to help me describe the countryside out the SUV window as my protagonist and her pal rolled along on a road trip. Taking the same route months after I wrote the road trip passage, I discovered little needing correction. It’s also possible to find virtual tours of indoor spaces. I turned again to Google Street View to explore the interior of an art museum that I used as a setting. When I got stuck and needed some detail about what hung on the walls of a specific back hallway, I contacted someone at the museum, who happily sent me the information I needed.
- Weave Scene Description in With the Action.Your story doesn’t have to sit still while you describe your scene. I prefer to skip lengthy setting of scenes at chapter openings and reveal details as a chapter unfolds.
- Move On and Circle Back. If you’re missing a detail that you’d really like to incorporate, but are on a writing roll, keep moving and come back later. I keep a running list of facts that need checking and circle back often. And those scant scene descriptions at chapter openings? I circle back and review those, too—adding details as needed to smooth the flow of the story between chapters.
- Write to Delight Your Reader’s Senses.Describe with an eye toward delighting your readers and drawing them into your scene. Write with all four of your physical senses fully engaged and give your readers non-visual elements with which to connect—the scent of a flower, the caw of a crow, the warmth of the sun. And then give them more.
- This might seem contrary to how you usually write, but I skimp on character development in my first draft and focus instead on setting scenes and physically moving my characters through them. I then build the story details and the characters around that wireframe. This is especially important if you’re setting a scene in a complex locale and have committed to accuracy. Remember, you can always invent devices later that bend the wire and move your characters more quickly through an environment (you are, after all, writing Visionary Fiction!), but you need to be completely comfortable with the nuances of the space to seamlessly pull that off.
- Describe Other Worlds Completely and Overlap Elements Across Planes.I have to admit that I struggle to stay engaged with a story in which guides and angels watch Earth-bound characters from a vaguely described “afar”. You can make your Visionary Fiction more accessible to a wider audience by devoting part of your word count to full description of your guides’ environs. Even better, look for ways to overlap physical elements across planes. Have your guides hang out in an apple orchard, for example, as your protagonist munches an apple and receives a hit of intuitive inspiration.
Overall, I use scene description to make the idea of spirit guides and magic not so far removed from ordinary experience. A well-crafted scene is very much a palette onto which you can paint the most spiritual of action without completely losing your Earth-bound audience. Look out upon the world like the artist that you are and describe in delightful detail what you see. Your stories will become ever more engaging and accessible for the effort.
Linda S. Gribko is an author, artist, and photographer living in Morgantown, West Virginia. Early on in life, she pushed her in-born love for writing and art into the hobby closet as she earned degrees in natural resources. Having never quite worked out a plan to use her education, and always struggling to stay afloat while searching for the elusive “something else,” she tried out a wide range of careers before eventually landing on a corporate position that should have marked the end of her search. However, on January 4, 2014, a meteor flew over her head and wagged its tail as she proclaimed to the stars that she was the Universe. Three months later, she had quit her job and was raiding the closet for all the loves she’d left behind. There she found the makings of Giving Voice to Dawn, her debut novel published in November 2016. Her current works-in-progress include a set of meditation cards and a vision board experience based on the wisdom shared in Giving Voice to Dawn. She also writes a blog, Hawk Finds Her Wings—a prequel of sorts that keeps the dawn sky burning bright as Crow and friends provide accompaniment.