Posted by: nancycurteman | March 9, 2011

How to Write Mystery Novel Scene Settings

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In a mystery novel, scene settings are as important to the plot as the characters. For example, the scene setting for the climax is often the vehicle for instilling suspense and fear in the mind of the mystery novel reader.  A poorly written scene setting can stop a fast-moving story dead. The best way to write a scene setting that propels the plot forward is have your characters interact with their surroundings. Here’s how:

• Your point of view character should experience the scene setting through h/er senses. S/he may taste the garlicky bread, shiver in the damp sea air, smell rotted timbers in the old house, or hear the polka music inside the dance club.

• The scene setting may evoke emotions, memories, mood or reactions on the part of your character. The polka music reminds h/er of life her childhood in a small Polish village. The rotted timbers in the old house ignite h/er anger at having moved to such a miserable place. The damp sea air sent h/er racing to the house for a warmer jacket.

• Describe settings by having your character experience them. S/he sank into the soft, velvet-covered chair. H/er eyes jerked to the gilded French doors when a gust of wind hurled them open. S/he rushed to close them before the deluge destroyed the Persian carpet.

Here are a few other tips for creating authentic scene settings:

• Use real street names and businesses. For example, Susan peddled her way up Washington Boulevard and stopped outside the heavy oak door of the historic Mission San Jose de Guadalupe.

• Have your character gradually notice elements in the setting. Don’t do a “description dump” where you spend half a page describing what your character saw when s/he entered the room. In reality, s/he wouldn’t notice everything at once. As always, it’s essential to show not tell.

• Incorporate surrounding sounds, people and activities. S/he looked around. Most of the customers had left the restaurant except for one young couple at a corner table holding hands and whispering words she couldn’t hear. The roar of trucks rocketing past on the busy highway pulsated in h/er ears.

Think of your mystery novel scene setting as a dynamic vehicle for engaging your readers in a fast-paced adventure.

More writing tips:
What is Story Structure?
6 Ways to Avoid “Information Dumps” in a Mystery Novel


  1. Excellent, Nancy. My new project is heavy on atmosphere and detail (it’s set in 1904, Dublin). But not too heavy that it detracts from the story itself.


  2. Excellent points, as always.

    Thanks, NC!


  3. Waiting eagerly for the E-book. 🙂


  4. I like how Nancy drew us in. (Sorry. Couldn’t help using that mysterious reference)

    I agree, Nancy. Setting is a very important component of the story (or it isn’t).

    For example, the Hotel isn’t just a setting in Stephen King’s “The Shining”, it is also a character.

    At the same time, the run-down flat in “Metamorphosis” could as easily been a compartment on a Martian coloney.

    As writers it falls to us to decide how much “presence” our setting has in our stories.

    Good post.


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