How to Set Up a Scene

The 5 Ws of Setting Up a Scene

And Why They’re Crucial to Keeping Your Reader Engaged

You all know the 5 Ws: Who, what, when, where, and why—but did you know they’re important in gaining a reader’s trust when you’re setting up a scene. That without all 5, your reader may set down your book and never pick it up again? Did you know that setting up a scene so depended on these factors?

I’ll explain what I mean by this in a minute, but first, let’s define “scene.” 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a scene as: 

1: one of the subdivisions of a play: such as
a: a division of an act presenting continuous action in one place
b: a single situation or unit of dialogue in a play; the love scene
c: a motion-picture or television episode or sequence

In a manuscript, scenes are composed of sections within a chapter, a chapter itself, or several chapters. It’s a continuous moment that can be told from one or more perspectives as long as there isn’t a jump in time. Now, to be perfectly clear, this isn’t an article about how to write an engaging scene, though I’ll probably write one of those soon, this is merely an article about how to set up a scene and why it’s important to do so. 

On more than one occasion, I’ve started reading a book that has ignored the 5 Ws and I’ve ended up closing it never to pick it up again. Why? Because we should know everything your POV character knows, and as quickly as possible. If we don’t, it’s usually a good indicator that you don’t know what your MC knows. 

Now, you might think that’s perfectly fine if you’re a pantser, (a writer who doesn’t plot, only writes by the seat of their pants,) but it’s not. Why? Because by the time you’ve finished writing your novel, you know what your character knows, and there’s no longer any excuse to not fix the 5 Ws in edits. 

It’s not a sign of pantsing and going where the story takes you, it’s a sign of bad editing. 

Let me explain with an example. 

Setting Up a Scene

I recently read a novel that started with a young man sitting in an office in the morning, waiting for his attorney to arrive. So far so good, right? 

Let’s check our 5 Ws

Who? 

A young man.

Check. 

What? 

He’s waiting for his attorney. 

Check.

When? 

The morning. 

Check. 

Where? 

His attorney’s office. 

Check. 

Why? 

That, we didn’t get until a few pages later, longer than I would’ve liked, but not unheard of as the “why” can take time to establish, so I’ll give it a check anyway. 

Check. 

So what was the problem? 

The story continued with the attorney arriving, some inner narrative about his thoughts of the attorney, and some get to know you conversation. 

Mind you, I was about 5 pages in at this point. Now, I could stop and talk about the fact that we got a lot of info-dumping, that the get-to-know-you conversation wasn’t all that interesting, that the scene lacked any conflict, purpose, or goals, that the details of the office weren’t pertinent to the story, all things true in this story, and never good especially at the beginning of a novel, but this isn’t about writing a good scene it’s about setting up a good scene. 

In the first page or two of setting up a scene, all I need to know is WHO is in the room, WHAT they’re doing, WHEN they’re doing it, WHERE they’re doing it, and WHY they’re doing it, and, as quickly as possible. 

So, based on the information above, you’d think this book nailed it. 

You’d be wrong. 

Five or so pages in, as the young man is talking to his attorney, he suddenly turns to his sister, who unbeknownst to the reader, has been sitting next to him this entire time. 

The author gave us details of the rooms curtains, the desk, and the chair her MC sat in, all unnecessary to the plot, but didn’t tell us the MC’s sister was sitting next to him? 

No. 

Nope. 

Stop it! 

This completely threw me out of the story, which if I’m being honest wasn’t holding my attention to begin with. 

I was so sure I was mistaken, that I must have somehow missed said sister, that I even went back and re-read the first few pages to find where I’d missed her. The sister wasn’t there. It wasn’t my fault; it was the author. 

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. If you miss any of the 5 Ws, your reader isn’t going to like it. 

Why? 

No reader wants to feel like they missed something important, and if they feel they have, they’ll often go back to check. If what they thought they missed isn’t there, they’ll be irritated that they wasted time looking and with the author. Even if they don’t go back, it’ll still stall them as they try to recall if they read it. It pulls them out of the story, and that’s not good for them or you.

Think of it this way. Have you ever read a scene where you thought it was day, and then it turns out it was night? Or have you ever pictured a character as blond only to discover they’re brunette? Or have you ever pictured a character doing one thing only to discover they’re doing something so different it isn’t even in the same realm? 

I’m sure you have at least once. 

How did it make you feel? 

It’s jarring, right? You’ve spent a page, a chapter, several chapters thinking one thing only to be told it’s completely different. 

What it does is throw you out of the story. It makes your brain stop and process the change, and often with bad results. Often with feelings of disappointment. 

“But I thought he was in his 30s not his 50s!”

More likely, the author of the example above didn’t know her POV’s sister was in the room. She probably had no intention of having the sister there, but as she was writing, she decided the sister was needed. 

No. 

Nope. 

Stop it. 

That’s a total noob mistake, and you don’t want to get caught making it. So, here’s what you do. 

Before you write each scene, ask yourself these questions:

1.) Who’s my POV character? Is she alone or with someone? 

2.) What is my POV character doing? What are the people with her doing? 

3.) When is this scene taking place? What time of day? If it’s an opening scene at the beginning of a book, what time period is it taking place? 

4.) Where is my POV character? What is she doing in that space? What are the people with her doing in that space? 

5.) Why is she in this place, at this time, doing this thing? Why are the people with her doing whatever it is they’re doing? (This is usually attached to your POV character’s scene goal and conflict.) 

These questions should be applied to any scene throughout your manuscript, however, if it’s the opening scene of your book, we must know the following about your POV character as well, especially if it is your main character: Their name, age, gender, nationality, important physical characteristics, and a main personality trait (which can be shown via a characteristic moment).

We don’t necessarily need this all right out the gate, but for sure by the end of the first chapter. 

There’s nothing worse than picturing your MC one way only to be told later they’re something totally different. 

Let’s look at some examples: 

Example One

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull – Chapter One

Setting Up a Scene
Setting Up a Scene – Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Kendra stared out the side window of the SUV, watching the foliage blur past. When the flurry of motion became too much, she looked up ahead and fixed her gaze on a particular tree, following it as it slowly approached, streaked past, and then gradually receded behind her. 
  Was life like that? You could look ahead to the future or back at the past, but the present moved too quickly to absorb. Maybe sometimes. Not today. Today they were driving along an endless two-lane highway through the forested hills of Connecticut. 
 “Why didn’t you tell us Grandpa Sorenson lived in India?” Seth complained.
  Her brother was eleven and heading into sixth grade. He had grown weary of his handheld video game—evidence that they were on a truly epic drive.

The 5 Ws

Who: Kendra, her brother Seth, and her parents.

What: They’re driving. And because they mentioned Grandpa Sorenson, I’m making a leap to imagine that’s where they’re driving to. 

When: We know it’s present day because they’re driving, and based on the information in these three paragraphs, we can assume it’s daytime. 

Where: “[…] through the forested hills of Connecticut.”

Why: We haven’t gotten that yet, but again, because they mentioned grandpa, I’m assuming they’re going to visit him. Also remember that it’s okay if the why doesn’t come right away. It should be in the first chapter, preferably within the first few pages. Mull gives us our “why” on page 3. 

Did Mull pass? With flying colors.  

Example Two

The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’amour – Chapter One

Setting Up a Scene
Setting Up a Scene – The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour

I sat very still, as befitted a small boy among strangers, staring wide-eyed into a world I did not know. 
  I was six years old and my father was dying. 
  Only last year I’d lost my mother. She died longing for that far-off, lovely California where she was born, and of which she never tired of talking. 
  “Warm and sunny,” people said when speaking of California, but I knew it was a place where fear lived. 
  Now we were going there. We were crossing the desert to face that fear, and I was afraid. 
  My father sat close beside me trying to sleep, but torn occasionally by violent spells of coughing that caused the other passengers to turn their heads, some in pity, some in irritation. 
  Our wagon, drawn by six half-wild mustangs, plunged into the night, rocking and rumbling over a dim track that only the driver seemed to see. Ours was a desperate venture, a lone wagon with two outriders attempting the crossing from Santa Fe. 

The 5 Ws

Who: A small boy of six years. He’s the narrator and we don’t have a name yet, but that’s okay. Also, he’s with his dad, and other passengers, and the wagon has two people riding outside. 

What: They’re traveling. He’s sitting silently and his dad’s trying to sleep. 

When: They’re in wagon, and based on the cover, we can assume old west. Also, it’s night. 

Where: On a trail somewhere between Santa Fe and California.

Why: They’re going to California to face some fear. 

So, this took seven paragraphs to get all this information, but if you notice, each of the paragraphs is very little, so that’s fine. L’Amour also didn’t tell us all the reasons behind the why, but it makes for a perfect hook, so it works great. 

Did L’Amour pass? He sure did. 

Example Three

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling – Chapter Five

Setting Up a Scene
Setting Up a Scene – Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry awoke early the next morning. Although he could tell it was daylight, he kept his eyes shut tight. 
  It was a dream,” he told himself firmly. “I dreamed a giant called Hagrid came to tell me I was going to a school for wizards. When I open my eyes I’ll be back home in my cupboard.”
  There was suddenly a loud tapping noise. 
  And there’s Aunt Petunia knocking on the door, Harry thought, his heart sinking. But he still didn’t open his eyes. It had been such a good dream. 
  Tap. Tap. Tap. 
  “All right,” Harry mumbled, “I’m getting up.”
  He sat up and Hagrid’s heavy coat fell off him. The hut was full of sunlight, the storm was over, Hagrid himself was asleep on the collapsed sofa, and there was an owl rapping its claw on the window, a newspaper held in its beak. 

The 5 Ws of Setting Up a Scene

Who: Harry mostly, but later we find out that Hagrid’s sleeping nearby, and from the previous chapter that Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley are nearby. 

What: Harry’s just waking up and is telling himself that he’d just been dreaming about Hagrid. And he hears a tapping sound. 

When: Morning. 

Where: In a hut. From the last chapter, we also know that it’s on a rock island in the middle of a lake. 

Why: We still have some “why” from the last chapter. They’re in the hut because Uncle Vernon was trying to escape the owls and their letters. But for this part, the why would probably be “why is Harry trying to convince himself it didn’t happen?” And the answer to that is up to the reader. You could also say the why has to do with the tapping owl. Why does he have a paper? Why is he tapping? 

So, did Rowling pass? Yep. She sure did. 

Action Step

Here’s your homework—it’s a two-parter: 

1.) Pull a few books off your shelves and read their scene starters. How do they measure up? How do you feel about the ones that make all 5 Ws and the ones that don’t? Can you see the difference? 

2.) Pull out a notebook for your current WIP and ask yourself the questions above before writing each scene, see how it improves your story. 

And, in the comments, let me know a time where you read a book and learned your thoughts on a character’s appearance, what they were doing, where they were, what time it was, or why they were doing what they were doing was wrong. 

I’ll start. 

The 5th Wave, a great story, didn’t reveal the gender of the main character until chapter 2. I thought she was a boy. Oops. 

Extra Step

Write down the 5 Ws and keep them close to your computer while you write so you can make sure your scenes are starting with a bang and not a frustrating fizzle. 

Any thoughts or comments? Drop them below. I love to hear from you. 

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Author with Gelato Books, award winning writer, & editor of editors. I’m that good. ;) I help authors go from first draft to money in the bank. Cha ching!

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