The manuscript I've been plugging away at diligently seemed to me to hit a bump in the "break into act 2" --that moment when the protagonist moves out of the known setting and into the unknown. When my group told me this scene wasn't really grabbing them, I had to agree. It wasn't grabbing me, either.
My character walks into the setting of a grandparent who hoards. And if you've ever seen more than one episode of Hoarders, you know there's something fascinatingly pathological about the phenomenon. But random piles of stuff stacked to the ceiling isn't actually that interesting to read about.
|photo by Marcin Modestowics, morguefile.com|
The more I've researched the psychology at play in this family, the more ideas began to suggest themselves. I have a better sense of ways to make this setting stand out, to communicate volumes with a few well-chosen details. Much of the research actually upended my understanding of this grandparent's inner workings.
If you find yourself at a loss about how to make a setting that matters, I suggest going deeper with your characters. Beyond the obvious. What drives them? What are their aspirations? How do they like to present themselves to the world? How divergent are their inner and public personas? What past wound to they expend energy hiding or compensating for?
Had Rowling made Umbridge a bit more like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's Matilda, she wouldn't be quite as chilling. And certainly not sophisticated enough a villain for as grand and mature a series as Harry Potter.
Go deeper in understanding your characters' psychology, and stand out settings and details will begin to suggest themselves to you, too.
In what books or films have you found the settings and details psychologically interesting? How might you pump up your work with details that play against expectation or serve as a smokescreen?