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5 Tips for Writing Better Settings

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How much setting should we add to our stories? Is there a right or wrong answer? Or is it merely an individual decision based on personal preferences?

Obviously, different genres carry different expectations. Historicals need more setting details in order to help the reader “time travel” to the past. Science fiction or fantasy may require more elaborate descriptions so readers can visualize the new worlds. Often exotic locations need more fleshing out.

Really, anytime we’re writing about times and places that are unfamiliar to the majority of our readers, we’ll likely need to use more setting in order to help our readers “see” where they are.

But even within varying genres, how can authors tell when they’re getting the right amount of details? How much is too much, too little? How do we know when we’ve got just enough?

Too Much? We tend to include too much when we do an extensive amount of research on a particular subject and think we need to get it all in (either to make ourselves look smart or because it fascinates us). The overload will likely bore our readers or cause them to skim through our descriptions.

Too Little? Plot-driven writers often use too few details. We get so busy telling the story and moving it along that we forget to help our readers experience where they are. Having too little setting may also be the result of not doing enough specific research, thus causing us to over-generalize on too many details.

Just Enough? If a writer leans toward using too much, they may need to ask themselves—why am I adding this? To show off how much I know? Or for the reader and the sake of the story? If a writer leans toward too little description, they may need to ask—am I grounding the reader enough? What else can I add to breathe life into the setting?

It’s tough to get just enough. The middle ground is going to vary depending upon our styles and genres.

However, what are some steps all of us can take to write better settings, no matter our style or genre? Among the many, many things a writer could describe, WHAT should we focus on? Here are 5 techniques I use in writing settings:

1. Use setting details to set the mood.

Sometimes it helps to decide the general mood of the scene (like fear, sadness, joy, etc.) before writing it. Then we can pick a few setting details that will help highlight that particular feeling.

For example, recently I was planning a scary scene in my current work-in-progress (WIP). I brainstormed a list of various setting details that would enhance the scare-factor: the scurry of a rat, the clatter of branches, the stench of vomit, etc. Then as I wrote the scene I referred back to my list and tried to weave in some of those details.

2. Make sure to “see” the setting through the eyes of the POV character.

We HAVE to know our characters inside and out in order to play their role authentically (see these posts for ideas on fleshing out characters: How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters & Creating Characters That Make Readers Cry ).

Once we’re in the point-of-view (POV) of a character for a particular scene, then we can only describe things that particular character would notice. My hero won’t care about the style and texture of my heroine’s dress, but he would notice the specific type of rifle the antagonist is holding.

3. Attempt to use all five senses throughout each scene.

We have an easier time adding in visual descriptions. But we can’t forget to bring our scenes alive through the use of textures, sounds, smells, and tastes. Maybe we can’t get ALL five senses onto every page. But as I write each scene, I make a conscious effort to find places to include as many as possible.

Thick, grainy coffee, the sizzle of frying pork, tangy tobacco smoke, the chill of floor boards against bare feet—all of these sensory details woven in a scene help the reader to sit in the room right next to our character.

4. Hone in on setting elements that are critical to the plot.

If possible, try to describe things that will somehow play a role in the plot. For example, in a recent scene I described a plate of slightly burnt molasses cookies on the dining room table. In the next chapter, the heroine uses the cookies in a daring plot move.

When we’re judicious with what we describe, it helps build suspense. Unconsciously readers will begin to expect that the elements we describe may come into play later.

5. Sprinkle in similes and metaphors.

I love similes and metaphors. They can be a beautiful writing technique when done sparingly and appropriately. We can weave in setting details through a well-placed simile.

For example, in a recent scene I say this: “Her pulse pattered with the same staccato as the icy-snow mixture that pelted the window.” (Through the simile, I’m cluing the reader into the weather—which is an important factor in the next scene.)

What is your biggest struggle with writing your settings? Do you use too much description? Too little? And if you’ve found a way to balance the details, what are some techniques you use?

33 comments:

  1. Before I write a scene, I slip into my character's skin and take a virtual tour. Then I begin writing. I have to make myself do this or I tend to move on to plot and dialogue, which comes easier to me. Great post!

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  2. On my first draft I never use enough. So I always go back through and add details. Always!

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  3. This is one of the best essays on the topic that I've read. Excellent ideas and a summation of the difficulty getting the balance right. -- MW

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  4. I really struggle with any form of description. I find I'm using the same phrases over and over. I've been trying to practice, though, by writing some description-heavy pieces.

    I'm going to try a couple of your suggestions and see how that goes. So, thanks!

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  5. I attended a class at ACFW last year with Rachel Hauck and Susan May Warren, and one of them said she works really hard to get all five senses in EVERY scene. I can't be positive, but I would say most of the room stopped what they were doing and looked up in shock at that statement, including me. But since then, I've taken note of the really great scenes I've read, and I'm realizing, that although taste is really hard to get into every scene, scenes really come to life when you try to include the sensory details.

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  6. I think I do okay with settings. But now, after reading this, I think I have to go back in and check.

    Also, Can I borrow that last line about the staccato-y ice-snow pulse pelting? That would really be perfect in one of my scenes.

    I'm kidding, of course, but it's really good.

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  7. The most common reminder I have to give myself is that human beings have four other senses I tend to completely ignore.

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  8. I find that my first drafts usually have way too much setting details. I think I'm working hard in that draft to make a clear picture of the scene for me as I write. Second drafts of full of cutting and strategically picking which details to leave in or fine tune for the greatest bang.

    And I totally agree with you on use of as many senses as possible. It really does help the reader experience the scene!

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  9. Love this post and love the examples---the simile example in particular was beautiful. :-)

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  10. As a historical novelist, I tend to collect far more fascinating tidbits than any one book can ever use. At the same time, I may be so immersed in my setting that I overlook what the reader doesn't know because the reader is not me. I must remember to take the reader with me when I walk into a scene.

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  11. You're right. Showing the details from the character's POV is an important part of the realism. People notice different things. When you capture the descriptive elements that are important to the character and the story, it effectively guides the reader through the scene.

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  12. Good questions! I probably need to work on my characterization when I use setting, but one thing I love doing with setting is creating mood. My fave!

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  13. I love reading about and writing about settings. Maybe too much. I'd say the toughest part for me is adding in taste.

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  14. Learning how much description to use to establish the setting without overwhelming the reader can be a challenge. In my early works, I overdid the visual and used very little of the other senses. Over time, I found a balance that works for me.

    How long did it take you to learn how to bring your settings to life using the great tips you shared in this post, Jody? Did it come naturally, or do you have pitiful early efforts forever hidden from others?

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  15. I'm reading this year's Newbery, MOON OVER MANIFEST, and it has a wonderful sense of place. I feel like I know this small Kansas town and the people who call it home.

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  16. I'm one of those plot-driven writers that you describe! My stories tend to be heavy on action and mystery, so I just want to get to the next event. Fortunately, there are two people in my writing critique group who are excellent at scene-setting, and one in particular is also good at pinpointing the details about setting that would improve my stories. Looking at my work through their eyes is helping me improve.

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  17. I have so much to learn! Thanks for these posts!

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  18. Love these points. Working to implement them all! Will let you know how it turns out. :)

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  19. Keli asked: "How long did it take you to learn how to bring your settings to life using the great tips you shared in this post, Jody? Did it come naturally, or do you have pitiful early efforts forever hidden from others?"

    My answer: Hi Keli! Oh I have plenty of pitiful efforts hidden away forever! :-) And quite honestly, I'm still working on each point. As tend to end up more like Laura above--often going more sparse on my first draft, and adding in more details during edits (even after my wonderful crit partner reads it!). And as you know, I lean toward more action anyway. So I think adding setting will always be something I have to be conscious to take the time to do.

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  20. Hi Jody. Great list. I'm not sure where I fall in terms of too much or too little with regard to setting. I do focus on setting during revisions and ask myself if the setting details I'm using are helping to move the story forward and/or develop character.

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  21. This is an excellent post, Jody! I need to be deliberate about including details of setting. In my first drafts I tend to be focused on the character and plot, so setting is skimpy. During revision I stop at the beginning of each scene and try to visualize the setting from the character's perspective. Different characters will experience their settings differently, and notice different things. That's when I add more details.

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  22. Great Blogspot!

    I pinned you to my blog for linking back.

    Thanks for the information and advice.

    I never tire of learning more about the craft.

    Lucy

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  23. I love to go all out with the setting at first and then slash and burn. My weakness is that I get too attached to description and I often leave what can be cut. LOVE-LOVE-LOVE similes and metaphors. They are such fun to craft. Super useful post. Thank you.

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  24. I'm very visual when I write. I create the scene in my mind as if I was looking at a movie, then try to find the most vivid words I can to describe what I see. I think I do fall into the habit of re-using certain stock phrases though.

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  25. These are great tips. I tend to write too little description and then I have to go back and weave it in. But I have learned that it is very valuable to setting the proper pace, as well as to keeping the reader grounded.

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  26. Hi Jody -

    I tend to err on the side of too little setting. Your post gave me some great ideas on how to achieve a balance.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  27. GREAT advice Jody!!!! This is so totally one of my problems! I am one of those "plot" driven writers that doesn't have enough setting and I have to really work to add it. I think I get irritated when I read and there is TOO much setting (were I want to yawn and say get on with it) that I tend to go the opposite direction when I write. GREAT tips again... THANKS!

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  28. Hi Jody. I recently judged a short story contest for 'Inkspill Magazine' (www.inkspillmagazine.com) and I can totally empathise with the issues you've raised.

    The hardest aspect to criticise, I found, was when there was nothing technically wrong with the story, yet it just doesn't grip you as a reader... Doesn't stay in your head and make you think, or provide an emotional impact. Elements of originality and resonance are important in short stories, I think. It's hard to highlight exactly how to achieve that, though.

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  29. Great point, Sophie. There are some stories that are technically correct, but don't grip. That's so true. I can see how that would be easier to spot in a short story. I think the "grip factor" would be harder to judge in the first 15 pages of a full length novel. Usually if a novelist has their technique perfected, they will open with a hook. But whether they can carry that hook beyond the first chapter and throughout the book is another matter altogether.

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  30. "When we’re judicious with what we describe, it helps build suspense."

    Wow, this I'd never heard before, but it seems like a critical piece of narrative description technique. I will have to ponder this more thoroughly.

    Great post, as always!

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  31. I try to notice how the authors that I read use descriptions and detail like this. It's sometimes hard to see it in my own writing, but when I notice it in books that I read, that gives me ideas. I've seen examples of everything that you list here in books that I've read recently. Great tips.

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  32. Great post! I've tended to teetering back and forth. It depends on how much detail I have created beforehand. For example, my underground city got tons of detail, so much that I had to tie them in with events to avoid infodumping. On the other hand, my plain-Jane town has few details and a lot more events.

    I'm finding a good rule of thumb is to limit the number of details. Create extra details and pick the details that do the most in terms of character development and plot motion. You know your writing is good when you have to take out good stuff because all you have room for is great stuff.

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  33. I think about the character's feelings during the scene and then ask myself questions like,"which objects are metaphors for his feelings" or I think about the atmosphere in the street or room and how it could affect his or her actions.
    I'm always trying to build a consistent setting around my characters - city life on the street and interiors.

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