The difference between Setting and Setting the Scene is the same as the difference between noun and verb.
Setting is the place, time, and tone of a story. Readers need to feel as though your characters exist and no one exists without setting. We are all experiencing a time, a place, and a tone. These factors feed, and sometimes set the boundaries for, plot and characterization.
When you set the scene, you are using the tools that the setting provides. The goal is to make the reader feel what you want without telling them.
As a middle school teacher, the first tools that come to mind are the senses. What sights are around and how can you use them? These don’t have to be grand visions either. If your character is walking around, the colors they see, whether vivid or washed out, can guide your reader to an attitude. Sounds are equally important. Is there distinct music or is it distant? The type of music being played is an easy marker for culture. Come to think of it, so are the smells of specific food being cooked.
The Little Things
The indicators of setting should be done subtly. Small details need to be anchored with purpose to meaningful ideas.
What is it about the weather happening now that shapes a character’s mood and decisions? You can give a hundred reasons why a character should be depressed, but an overcast day can punctuate this feeling. If the sun breaks through the clouds, however, your character might make it outside. Clouds aren’t the only things you can use. Thunderstorms, hail, drizzles, snow, tornadoes, heat waves, droughts, humidity, and mild chills all bring feelings to mind that can be used to shape a reading experience.
There are some locations, like London and Hawaii, where a certain type of weather is expected. With this expectation comes a set of characteristics that shape culture. Dropping details into your writing ties a story to the feeling of a place.
Seasons and time of day are also heavy with meaning. Characters should feel differently in the fall than they do in the summer or spring. They simply do different things and behave differently. Very few people barbecue in the winter, and those who do rarely have the huge party in their yard that typically goes along with the sizzles and smoke. What season makes sense for your story? Similarly, time of day shapes a person’s behavior. This goes beyond showing whether your hero is a morning person. Many people enjoy whiskey but not many enjoy it at 9:30 a.m. A different crowd is at your corner 24-hour Diner at noon on Sunday than there was just eight hours earlier.
Finally, despite how individual we all like to pretend we are, the people and creatures around us also shape behavior. If your character is walking down a city street in the summer at 1:30 a.m., there is meaning behind whether there are other people around her. Pets, too, have an influence over mood. Does your anxiety-ridden hero need calming? Have him scratch Mittens behind the ear for a moment or two. Even if it has nothing to do with plot, trying not to listen to a couple argue in the apartment next door or seeing six cats run into an alley in April makes your reader feel what you want without having to say it.
When It’s Most Important
You have the most control over your reader at the start of a story. This is when they are most receptive to your introduction of character and setting. There are different expectations for your story when you start in a saloon than when you begin on the bridge of a star ship.
Historical, fantasy, and science fiction stories have high-need settings. This is because what your characters eat, drink, sing, fight with, and believe in are usually different than the reader’s norm.
Don’t Overdo It
Setting the scene is about dropping small details, not going on for pages about a landscape. The days when that was okay are long over. Readers simply don’t have the patience for it. With a little thought and purpose, a sentence or two is all you need to bring a setting to life.