Consider your favorite television show. You watch as the characters move through a realistic environment that reflects a place applicable to the story. Important cues in the scenery tell you where things are happening. In Star Trek, a small room where there’s a pulsing light on the wall means that we’re in a turbolift moving at high speed. A round room with a screen at the front means we’re on the bridge. And a room with a bench near the window invariably means we’re in someone’s quarters.
In simming – just like reading a book – it’s exactly the opposite. There’s no scene for us to see. Instead, the writer (you!) has to explain what the scene looks like through the eyes of the character. This is an incredibly important part of helping a sim come alive for the reader.
But many simmers fall into the trap of assuming that because we have a shared understanding of what Star Trek “looks like,” we can forgo scene-setting. Or, perhaps some writers assume that because we use a modified script format that our sims should read more like a screenplay than they do like a novel. But that’s just not true.
The more interesting your sims are to read, the more likely that other simmers will engage with them, and that’s why learning scene-setting is the most important tweak you can make to your writing.
The first habit you need to break, as you begin to learn the skill of scene-setting, is to avoid “telling” and instead start “showing.” It’s fine to tell the audience that your character lifted the mug, or that he or she smiled at the person they’re talking to. But it would be better if your audience got to experience what was happening through your writing. Let’s look at an example:
Telling: Bethany nodded as she lifted the mug and took a sip.
Showing: She was in total agreement with Dora about where this was going. That man was a scoundrel, and everyone on the ship knew it. An absent-minded sip from her mug caused her to wince, Dang that coffee’s hot! she thought, shooting an angry stare across the room at the replicator that refused to follow directions.
See the difference? In the first example, we get the drift that Bethany agrees, because she nods. But in the second, the nod is implied because her unconscious thoughts and feelings are being described. We’re seeing that she agrees, instead of being told. And instead of being told that she’s taking a sip of the mug, we’re seeing it. The action of shooting an angry stare across the room even coincides with her outrage toward “that man.”
Let’s try another:
Telling: Bruce was tall. Everyone was always looking up to him.
Showing: Another dent in his forehead. That was the fifth time he had knocked his head on a door-frame this week! He’d expect that on an old Miranda class, where the doors are hobbit-sized, but not on a Galaxy-class ship! And now that self-satisfied smirk from Bethany as she passed through with, what, a foot to spare? He rubbed his forehead in pain, his shoulders drooping as he slinked away in embarrassment.
Okay, so the second one’s a bit longer, but isn’t it more interesting to read?
So now you have an idea of what simple actions can look like with a little more color. But what about actually setting the scene? Remember, even though we share a common “language” of understanding about what Star Trek looks like on screen, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make our sims more interesting. And you can do that by helping the reader see what your character is seeing, like this:
Telling: “Ugh, I’m going to be late again.”
Showing: The door hissed open quietly and Bruce stepped through, dipping his head a bit to avoid hitting it on the frame. There had to be dozens of people seated, facing the other end of the room. This was no good — it was so dark he’d never find Bethany! He slowly made his way along the wall, only to get all tangled-up in the decorative Angosian spice-plant near the door, the one he had admired just yesterday, damnit! Someone, Bethany!, turned and shushed him, her 3-D glasses reflecting off the screen before she went back to leaning against a man next to her as they shared popcorn. If only he had arrived on time, that man could have been him…
Instead of just being told that he’s late, we get to experience the ramifications of being late. We understand that he’s being late without being told, and in a way that also makes us understand that Bruce is tall, clumsy and forgetful, probably because he’s nervous. And we know that he’s going to a 3-D movie-night in a room he’s already been in before.
Now let’s apply some of this showing to the actual scene the character is moving through:
Telling: Bruce and Bethany enter the bridge.
Showing: Bruce felt like he had never been here before. Despite standing on the bridge every day now, eight hours a day for six months, it all felt new. What was once a room that was colder than he thought he could bear all day was now warm to the point of causing a bit of dew on his forehead. That coy smile and wink from Bethany, as she headed to her seat at Ops put his thumping heart far louder than the quiet engine thrum. And that starfield — so silent and empty before, now so deep and streaky, so full of opportunities they were racing toward! He hummed happily as he locked his console and rubbed it with sleeve. No way was this panel going to be smudged today.
Bruce thinks the bridge is too cold for comfort. We know he’s been a bridge officer for six months, and even that his console was smudged with fingerprints when he arrived. Oh, and we know that Bruce and Bethany are flirting with each other!
Remember, too, that showing doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to write more. Sensory writing and self-reflection can be done concisely, and the sort of boring, expository telling you see here may be much longer and more dense. Critical and thoughtful consideration of your descriptions makes all the difference!
Next time you write a sim, think about how you can help set the scene for the reader, and make your sim more colorful. Remember to show, don’t tell!
Other tutorials to consider: