3 Techniques to Keep in Mind When Setting the Stage

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

My younger children and I recently read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning. It's not the first time I've read the book, but it IS the first time I've read it while analyzing Lemony Snickett's writing techniques. I was underlining, taking notes in the margins, and swooning practically the entire book.

Even though the book is geared for elementary to middle school aged children, I still took away plenty of writing lessons that I could apply to my own YA and adult books.

I was particularly impressed with what an amazing job Snickett did of bringing the setting to life.

Of course, like most of the elements in his book, the setting is over-the-top (OTT) which here means: extreme to the point of being unrealistic. While OTT elements often can work in a children's story, they don't work as well in YA or adult fiction. Nevertheless, I think we can still evaluate Snickett's techniques and employ them to any genre or writing style.

I like to look at the setting of our scenes the same way we might a stage at a theater production. The actors usually don't walk around on an empty platform.

Rather there are props, backdrops, and furnishings. Likewise, we can't have our characters walking around in empty or sparse scenes. We need to infuse the scenes with a variety of elements too.

But what do we use to set the stage? And how?

Here are a few things Snickett did particularly well:

1. Set the stage right away.

The orphan children were arriving at their new home and Snickett immediately sets the stage so that the reader knows exactly how things look.

"The bricks were stained with soot and grime. There were only two small windows, which were closed with the shades drawn even though it was a nice day. Rising above the windows was a tall and dirty tower that tilted slightly to the left . . . The entire building sagged to the side like a crooked tooth."

From the beginning of a scene, we need to give our readers a clear picture of where the characters are. Perhaps we won't have a full paragraph of descriptions (which worked for Snickett in his OTT story, but rarely works well for most other genres). But we can unfold the setting in small bites for our reader.

Sidenote: Be wary of cluttering up the stage with too many people and too many props.

2. Set the stage often enough.

Snickett doesn't stop after he's set the stage. No, he continues to bring the setting to the reader's mind throughout the scene. As the children step inside their new home, he further describes props, backdrops, and furnishings.

"Even by the dim light of the one bare light bulbs that hung from the ceiling, the three children could see that everything in the room was filthy, from the stuffed head of a lion which was nailed to the wall to the bowl of apple cores which sat on a small wooden table."

Often writers get so excited by their dialogue or swept up in their plot, that they forget to continue to ground the reader in the setting. When that happens, we risk having our characters become "talking heads" where two or more people are conversing without much else going on.

3. Set the stage strategically.

Those working in theater productions (or on movie sets) know the importance of making every detail of the setting count for something. They never haphazardly put an item on the stage, but rather decide on props with careful planning. And Snickett doesn't randomly describe things in the setting either.

For example, when the children arrive at their new home, Snickett describes the house next door first. "The children looked out and saw the prettiest house on the block. The bricks had been cleaned very well, and through the wide and open windows one could see an assortment of well-groomed plants."

Snickett didn't randomly decide to describe the neighborhood at large. Rather he honed in on the neighbor's home for (at least) three reasons:

For setting a mood. He makes the reader feel cheerful and happy, that perhaps things might not turn out so bad for the orphans after all.

For adding contrast. Right after describing the neighbor's house, then he shifts to their new home. In contrast to the pretty home, we're left feeling even worse for the children.

For defining characters. We come to realize that the description of both houses is a reflection of the people who live inside them.

Sidenote: While strategically picking props and backdrop, make sure those are things the POV character would actually see from their perspective and personality.

My Summary: We can choose our props for many reasons–to use as symbolism or to help further the plot or to act as a decoy. Whatever the case, the better we set the stage, the more pleasure we bring to our readers reading experience!

So how about you? How are you doing setting the stage of your scenes? What are some other tips or tricks that you utilize when laying out your settings?


  1. You know, I've never read those books? Crazy!

    Reminds me of the saying that went something like, "If there's a gun on the wall, there'd better be a reason."

    These are great reminders, Jody. In later drafts, I'll sprinkle in description throughout the scene.

    1. LOVE that saying, Julie!! That's absolutely perfect! Thank you for sharing! And I agree, I often double check my setting details in the editing stage to make sure I've got enough.

  2. I especially like your #2. Sometimes I read a story where the only physical description is on the first page and then 200 pages later, I can't remember where the forest was, and who lived next door . . . because it was only mentioned once and in one way. Continual description droplets throughout a novel can offer different aspects of that scary forest. In one chapter we notice it's dark. In another scene, we see that there are weird vines hanging from the trees, blocking light. In another scene, there is nothing growing on the forest floor. Hm . . . picture gets clearer as you process through the book. The background can almost mirror your story as you seamlessly describe it. The subplot that nobody notices is genius! The forest that changes for the worse as your characters experience defeat, and then when the characters make a change, the look of the setting might change as well - or the characters might notice the positive things more than the negatives.
    Great post!

    1. Love your thoughts, Jennifer. "Continual description droplets" is such a great way to describe it. And as you said, we can offer differing glimpses to match moods or to mirror the story. It IS almost like our setting is a subplot! :-)

  3. Great post.
    Total side note:
    I met the author of that series, and he's hilariously odd. He gave a speech to librarians and then signed books....even made silly faces in the picture!

    1. Hi Laura! I can only imagine that the writer of the book is witty and somewhat sarcastic. It definitely comes through in his writing voice. Even the name he chose, "Lemony Snickett" is such a good match for the series, isn't it? :-)

  4. I'm a very visual person so setting the stage is easy for me. I like to be able to picture things vividly and want my readers to be able to do so, as well. Of course, I have to be careful not to over-describe settings.

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  6. Great reminder to ground the reader in the setting!!

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