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The Importance Of Setting The Scene In Storytelling

Who, what, when, where, why and how?

One of the reasons we love good stories is that they transport us into other places, and if the storyteller tells it well, we may even learn something of value ourselves along the way.


For the ease of discussion, and to simplify any confusion between written stories or performed stories, I am going to refer to the writer/performer as the storyteller and the reader/viewer as the listener.

Ideally, the listener wants to enter into the 'cinema of the mind', whereby the story transports them into the imagined world of the storyteller. In order to do this successfully the listener needs details to begin to compose the images in their minds.


If I started a story with "I went to visit my parents and my dad said to me 'Your mum told me about your new job. Son, you need to go out there and make something of yourself'." Yes, it works, in the sense that there is an interaction between father and son, but it is hard for the listener to set this interaction in any particular place.


If I started the story in another way though, "I walked towards the back of the garden. The Midsummer rain felt like a gentle mist. Dad picked up a pile of leaves, "Here, open that," he said as he motioned towards a brown dustbin. "Your mum told me about your new job. Son, you need to go out there and make something of yourself."


With just a few more words we have much more to go off, and more details to help paint the picture. We can imagine the garden, the weather, the job the father is doing. We get a better sense of the relationship between the father and son.


These details are the G.P.S of storytelling. They help the listener know where they are going.


Rudyard Kipling said it best;

"I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who."

The more details we can provide then the clearer the image the listener will have and the more they can picture themselves in the scene and in the story. Details can also help to set the mood. To keep the listener's attention throughout the story we must always try to remember to update the listener as to the scene, the setting, the context. As long as they can always picture the scene they will want to find out where you will take them next.


Don't take it for granted that the listener assumes the setting and the mood, or even the year. In just a few words you can take an ordinary story and bring it to life.


Bad example: I was getting ready to go to the end of year High School dance.

Better example: It was the relentless, hot Summer of 1984. I was 12 years old and anxiously

getting ready in my bedroom to go to my High School end of year dance.


It doesn't have to take paragraphs of unnecessary descriptive writing to create a scene and set the mood. Less is often more, but something is much better than nothing.

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