Welcome to Theresa Stevens’s monthly Ask an Editor blog! Today, Theresa gives us the lowdown on settings.
Very commonly, writers want to know what separates the publishable-but-ordinary book from the publishable-and-great one. The answer is that there are many markers which separates an almost-great from a great. Point of view, tension, voice – give any two writers the same set of story elements to work from, and the better scene will come from the author with better control over those elements. And it’s not exactly a secret. We talk about these things pretty frequently.
One marker of excellence which we talk about less often, though, is setting. Your choice of setting and the way you manipulate it can have a powerful impact on the way the scene reads. Here are my top tips for writing a well-set story.
Don’t Use Block Descriptions
A character walks into a room and describes the furniture and walls and windows for a five-sentence clump of text. The entire story comes to a dead stop for this description. Nothing happens. The cast is frozen on the stage while the spotlight moves from the couch to the draperies. This kind of description is a pace-killer, and what’s more, it’s almost always unnecessary. Instead of block descriptions, drop in setting details when they become relevant to the scene action. The couch doesn’t matter until someone sits on it, and that’s when you can safely reference it.
Don’t Narrate Ordinary Details
They’re in the bedroom, so you describe the bed. They’re in the dining room, so you describe the table. Why? It’s probably a safe assumption that bedrooms have beds in them and dining rooms have tables in them. Is there any need to elaborate? Probably not, and if you spend page space on unsurprising details like this, you’re at risk of boring the reader.
But Do Describe the Unusual Details
Now, if that dining room table is built from the bones and skins of the villain’s victims, then it might be worth a mention. Don’t think of the ways your character’s rooms are typical – a blue sofa in the living room, a roller shade over the bedroom windows – unless the point is that your character is so ordinary as to avoid particular notice. Instead, look for the unique personal details that would act like conversation pieces in real life. These are the things that stick out in an ordinary environment, and they can be described in your book without a loss of tension or reader interest.
And Do Show When the Environment Changes
Your character is ordinarily as tidy as a surgeon, but on this occasion, his desk is a litter of paper, pens, clips, and there’s even a plate with a dried-up half sandwich in one corner. Sure, we expect to see desk items on a desk, so the paper and pens, at least, ordinarily wouldn’t rate a mention. But in this specific case, they’re worth describing because they create tension. “Something is different. Something has changed. Something might be wrong here.” Throw in the nasty leftovers, and we know it’s more serious than just a busy day. He’s so busy that he’s distracted. Forgetting to eat. Willing to attract vermin rather than clean up his lunch. And we instantly want to know why.
This trick works best when character has already been established, but it can also be used with minor and new characters. Just make sure you communicate to the reader that this setting detail is unusual, or build in other contextual details that connect to the emotion you’re trying to raise.
Do Opt for Unusual Settings
Sex in the bedroom? There are times when a bedroom setting is necessary and says something about the plot and characters. Think, for example, of the couple in an erotic romance that sneaks sex everywhere and anywhere but pretends they’re not emotionally invested in each other. Doing it in a bed for the first time might signal an emotional acceptance of the true nature of their relationship. In that case, the ordinary setting advances the internal plot and becomes meaningful.
But in ordinary cases, don’t just automatically put the sex scene in the bedroom, the dinner scene in the dining room, the picnic in the park, and so on. Take a moment to question why the scene is set in this location. Brainstorm a list of possible settings – they don’t have to be logical or even likely, but taking a moment to think through the geography of the characters’ world will soon show you that there are almost infinite setting possibilities. The simple act of picking an unexpected setting can make a reader more alert and engaged, even when the setting isn’t particularly important to the plot.
Do Let Characters Interact With Setting
They kick at rocks in the street. They fuss with decorative items on the coffee table. They fiddle with the radio dial in the car. When we say, “Give your characters something to do in this scene,” we’re not always talking about turning them into gardeners and chefs while they have important conversations with other characters. Sometimes, the solution is to have the character signal his internal state with the way she moves through the world around her. Keep the main focus on the character interaction, but incorporate setting details with action and emotion.
An added benefit of this technique is that it will help you avoid cliched gestures. A hand through the hair when frustrated? Or shredding a tissue into careful squares? Which feels more fresh? The second, I think. Don’t you agree?
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What other setting tricks do you use? Do you have any examples of a setting which was particularly interesting or well-written?
Join us on Monday when Mills and Boons New Voices contest finalists Leah Ashton and Heidi Hormel share their after the contest stories.
Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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