Monday, March 29, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, March 29, 2010 39 comments
In my post about setting, many of you commented that you don’t feel comfortable writing about setting and that setting descriptions are what you’re most likely to skim when reading.

Why is that? Perhaps you haven’t seen it done engagingly often enough. It's easy for setting descriptions to simply be an “establishing shot,” to borrow a film term. Image without meaning.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass argues that one "is at a distinct disadvantage by feeling indifferent to the time and place in which one's story takes place." Whether it's a foreground or background concern, stories that succeed don't ignore setting. But how do you keep them lively? The key, Maass says, is not how a place looks, but its psychological effect on characters.

I’ve had to conquer some dull description in my work and found Maass's observations really helpful. However, he stopped at diagnosis and didn't include treatment, so I thought I'd dive in and explain some the techniques I tried. Here is an example I most recently revised:

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Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones as we enter Ashmede. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is holiday-quiet. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a twelfth-century church and a graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones.

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As we enter Ashmede, Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones, making my clenched teeth rattle. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a fortress-towered church and its graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones. In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.

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Which version do you prefer? What’s the difference between the two?

The first is shorter, certainly. And that can be one way to establish setting—keep it brief. Drop in just enough “telling detail”: cobblestones, pubs, twelfth-century, mossy. Give the readers enough information to co-create this world with you in their imaginations. Provide parameters, but refrain from naming every shop, or including overly technical details that don’t link to the story at large, like the church being built from hand-quarried limestone.

I’d argue that example one suffers from the “why should I care?” factor. And that’s what makes readers skip your descriptions. Your protagonist must engage with the setting, or your readers won’t.

In the revision (example two), I looked for ways to make this description less passive or static. It needed as sense of motion and emotion. Here are some areas to address to achieve that.

Physical effects
Whatever your setting, include a detail about how the protagonist is bodily changed within it. Twigs snap under your protagonists’ feet. The damp air makes her shiver. His stomach roils when he smells rot. Her ears pop while riding up the incline. In my example, driving over cobblestones makes Dani’s teeth rattle.

This roots characters in a scene, and gives a sense of realness to your story world.

Opinions
Engagement with setting will involve your character’s value system and expectations. When she comes across something familiar, she will judge it as “safe.” If it’s unfamiliar, she will find a way to categorize it.

In my example, Dani judges the small town to be “scary quiet.” The lack of New York hustle and bustle is unfamiliar and frightening.

Associations
In the process of judging and categorizing an environment, your character will call upon his memories, experiences and cultural influences. He’ll seek to find parallels with what he already knows to make sense of the data. Associations might be expressed as a snippet of back story, a cultural reference, or as a simile or metaphor.

In my example, Dani associates the quiet town with a horror film scenario and expresses it in a simile: “…scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone.” In doing so, I’ve communicated something about her frame of mind and her frame of reference.

Another character would have seen the quiet and thought, “…is peaceful. Like the ease of sleep.” Or perhaps “…is dull as paste. Nothing exciting has happened here since the Viking invasion.”

Ties to the story problem and plot arc
A description that really pulls its weight will connect to the larger story arc. The setting your character is entering will either help or hinder her in her quest. It might present physical danger or shelter. It might make her let her guard down. It might remind her of the challenge she cannot avoid.

In my example, Dani sees the graveyard and predicts “In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.” She is reminded again that her deepest problem—wrestling with grief—can’t be easily escaped by a simple change in venue. That connection to the larger arc is two-pronged: a direct association she makes with the setting and her declaration of meaning.

It’s a powerful question to ask when you approach any setting: What does this place mean to my character?


What writers do you admire who infuse their setting descriptions with meaning?

How might you add physical effects, opinions, associations and story-arc ties to your setting descriptions? Which of these is easiest? Hardest?

39 comments:

  1. Great post! Really useful stuff. I love your second example - what a difference! We're seeing it through the character's eyes and experiencing what she's experiencing, rather than being detached, like in your first example. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. There is always so much to remember when writing. Each time I edit a chapter I have to comb it for passive voice. Then second I'll comb it for useless words. Now I will take your list of setting descriptives and comb my setting paragraphs with that.

    My second book I described a scene and I realize, after reading your post, that I over described it. (time away will give you perspective) THe key for me in what you said it to give the main descriptives to build an over all picture. People/readers can fill in the blanks with a good foundation after that.

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  3. Hey, I thought my blog was the one about revisions. You hornin' in on my territory? Oh, okay. I'll let it slide, since it was such an awfully good post.

    I took Maass's advice to heart as well. Especially since most of my stories have no particular place to them, and my CPs usually ask for more detail... :)

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  4. Good post. Flowing description is my biggest weakness.

    With reading, it is something that often bugs me - but not because of the description itself. Because, not only does it have to be integrated seemlessly, but it has to stay in character. If I'm reading a 15 year old MC and all the sudden the "magnificent tudor mansion, with its elegantly gabled..." I"ve just met the author. And completely lost the character.

    I agree, getting the feeling in there is a great way to keep in character.

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  5. Oh yes, the second description is much better! Thank you for illustrating Maass's technique! I've read that part of the book, but the way you just did it makes it all that much more clear.

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  6. What an outstanding post, Laurel! I never drop setting descriptions lightly in my writing. Of the things you listed here, I use setting most often as "Observations" which give the reader greater insight into the character. For me, setting as a characterization tool is much more effective and interesting than a character's physical appearance. The fact that the protagonist has emerald eyes tells me far less than if the cobblestones make her clenched teeth rattle.

    Awesome insights! Stop by my blog today, I left an award for you today!

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  7. Wow, Laurel. This is another post bound straight for my writing folder. This was such an effective and incredibly helpful post! :-)

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  8. Exactly! excellent follow up to your earlier post.

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  9. Excellent rewrite! That's really cool.

    So often I see this kind of post and the paragraph's "makeover" is not really compelling. Yours is really good, and all the more helpful because of its quality.

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  10. Talli: thanks! I can't tell you how many times I hit a slow section and find it can be helped with more voice, more of Dani being present.

    Bish: thanks so much.

    GWOE: I definitely revise in multiple passes too. Evocative should be your key idea when picking details to describe--using a few strong words that say a lot in a small space.

    Simon: Maass has a good point that stories that seem to "float" in no particular place aren't as vibrant or memorable as ones that are more anchored. But it's the *meaning* of setting to the character that's most important.

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  11. Tara: Ah yes, the author intrusion description! I've been guilty of that. Definitely infusing descriptions with voice (opinion, association) is a helpful cure.

    Aubrie: I took his advice, intuitively ran with it, then went back and analyzed what I did. These techniques are surely things I've heard other writing resources use. Glad you found them helpful.

    Nicole: Indeed, showing how the character perceives the world is a powerful way to draw them so readers engage with them, their journey and the world you've created. I couldn't agree more. And thanks for the fun award!

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  12. Shannon: Thanks. Glad to be of service. :-)

    Yat-Yee: Reading the Maass book got me thinking deeper about what makes some settings stand out, and others yawn-inducing.

    Rosslyn: Thanks for coming by, and for your kind words. So many agent blogs talk about the power of voice in making stories "sing", so I've been striving to give it more attention.

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  13. Great advice! I've had trouble with setting in the past because I can't always see it as clearly as the characters want me to see it. But I really think these suggestions will help.

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  14. I just did a post last week about this being my greatest writing weakness. You must have known?

    Great post!

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  15. This is excellent! It's something I'm trying to improve on. I like that part "Why do I care?" You are so right about that one. The second one makes me care.

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  16. Yeah, what you said! I love descriptions, and I hate descriptions and now I understand why. Writer that just dribble of setting facts are tiresome, but when they add how it affects the emotional state and physical state of the MC I’m pulled in. Thanks for focusing this for me.

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  17. LOVE the last line of your second description. I agree with Girl with One Eye...sometimes you need a day away to see that you have described too much (or even too little). It is like physically leaving a scene and coming back to it.

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  18. Great post. The most devastating use use of setting, and I mean that in the best way possible, was Cormac McCarthy in The Road. I feel every word of that book.

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  19. Such great advice. I notice that in a lot of the unpublished work I've read that the character development, dialogue, and action are all stunning, but that I can't quite picture where the character are within the house, school, city... It's easy to begin a scene with a solid setting in mind and then sort of let the atmosphere dissolve. I try to think about this in my own writing, but I guarantee I do the same thing. I can't wait to edit in this realm. Thanks!

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  20. Thank you, Laurel! You should teach at writer's conferences. I can't remember attending a workshop on setting. :)

    I've become a Follower here. Thanks for visiting my blog.

    Blessings,
    Susan

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  21. Outstanding post, Laurel. I've never understood why so little importance is placed on world building outside of fantasy. Settings are essential for pulling me into a story, and your explanation of what works and why is fantastic. Having the character engage with her surroundings made all the difference.

    James Lee Burke and Barbara Kingsolver both write heart stopping settings.

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  22. This is a really great post! I love how you've broken it down. I actually think I've included some examples of setting similar to the examples you've used. I'm going to have to really pay attention when I'm revising.

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  23. Great post to tuck in my memory. I like what Maass said about setting, how it has a psychological effect on the character. Yes. That's when we care, that's when it makes a difference if it were in India or America, present or past. I thought your second one was much better. I could see the moss covered tombstones and feel the pang of the "hole in my universe."

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  24. Donald Maass here. Your second version obviously is much better, as it brings us inside your character. Her feelings convey a dread that the mossy tombstones by themselves cannot.

    Now, what about an even more sophisticated use of emotions? What if in addition to dread, Dani also felt something else? Something contrasting, or even the opposite?

    Perhaps the hole in her universe (nice!) is also in a weird way something she desires? Might that attraction in a way be as frightening as the tombstones?

    Just a thought. BTW, there's an exercise called "The Psychology of Place" in the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, as well as a chapter called "The World of the Story" (with practical exercises at the end) in my latest book The Fire in Fiction.

    Nice post.

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  25. Laurel, I'm here to report that I just sent a flash fiction piece to 365 Tomorrows and another one to Flash Fiction Online. Now I am taking my jittery nerves out into the sunshine with my 3 year old to pretend I didn't really do it.

    Why do you think it is so hard to send out those first little stories?

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  26. E. Elle: You need to get behind the character's eyeballs and inside her skin, I think.

    Julie: Clearly I must be psychic. :-)

    Crystal: Meaning is so important for every element.

    Southpaw: Once I caught the idea, it was clearer how to fix the drab description problem.

    Jenna: distance does help, and outside advice and readers helps even more.

    Sarahjayne: I've heard great things about The Road--just edited a scholarly lit crit piece on it also. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  27. Amber: A strong sense of place can add great depth.

    Susan: Thanks so much. Someday perhaps. It would take a lot of prayer--I'm pretty phobic about public speaking.

    VR: Maass argues that all writers could learn a lot from the world building SFF writers do--a sense of place can enrich every work.

    Jemi: Get in your character's skin and opportunities to add voice will suggest themselves.

    Mary: Thanks. A really useful concept, isn't it?

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  28. Mr. Maass: Thanks so much for coming by and for your insightful comments. You've struck the emotional core of my story--Dani's dread of facing the loss of her father is tied to her desire to hang onto the love and the bond she had with him. Bringing those mixed emotions to her descriptions is something I'm working toward.

    Your workbook sounds really helpful. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  29. Charity: I'm so proud of you! Facing your fears and putting your work out there! I can't wait to hear updates.

    I think it's hard to get started because it's a step into the unknown. The sure thing feels comfortable, the "who knows?" feels threatening. Honestly, the worst they can do is say "not for us." You then reread and decide to immediately submit elsewhere or rewrite and submit elsewhere.

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  30. Fantastic post! Great way to show your point. Love the second one. I must get this book by Donald Maass.
    Thanks!

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  31. Laurel- great minds think alike! How funny that we both write a similar post. And wow, the man himself stopped by! How fun!

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  32. Whoa...super thorough. Nicely done, Laurel. I like to write setting through the lens of the protagonist, written of course in a way that you get a sense of how the setting is affecting your character. I think this is in line with what you were saying. But also, I like to keep setting brief--just little tidbits here and there, just enough to orient the reader, so the details have to be well chosen as to stand out and embody the entire setting. Not always easy to do, certainly, but as in all aspects of writing, when written well, the reader won't want to skim through it.

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  33. Christine: Thanks. I'm only partway through, but found some really useful ideas already.

    Kelly: Indeed. And yes, a nice bit of excitement.

    Carol: I mostly have small details here and there, as you describe, to give the sense of place. The example I had in the post is one of my longest setting descriptions and needed more voice to fit well with the overall story flow.

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  34. My friend, Rebecca (you can find her at http://www.rebeccasrecommendedreads.blogspot.com/) is VERY good at setting. She weaves setting with internal dialogue and sprinkles here and there around.

    I try to do the same as she does, not weight the reader down with info dumping.

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  35. What an informative post. These are things I'm going to keep in mind whenever I question the settings in my manuscripts.

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  36. Elizabeth: When descriptions become all about info dumping, the reader skims for sure. Good point.

    Medeia: Thanks. Engaging the character, rather than simply removing the sense of place, seems to be key.

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  37. I love how you describe their connection to a scene. It's the first time I've read it explained in this way--very clearly. Thank you!

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  38. Oh, my! Great site that I've missed for awhile!

    I totally loved the second and loved how you tied the emotion of the character to the setting. Camy Tang taught me this on my first novel, An Irishwoman's Tale. The old crit partners have to remind me every now and then but I'm getting it more often than not!

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