I recently finished reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. While the story was fascinating and well-told, what captivated me the most were the setting details that the author wove in seamlessly. The Alaskan wilderness in the 1920's came alive to me in a magical way so that I felt like I was right there in that dark cabin eating moose steak and listening to the blizzard rattle the roof.
Setting is a critical aspect of story, but in critiquing and judging books, I find that it is often one of the most neglected or under-developed writing skills. It's usually something I have to work very consciously to incorporate into my own stories.
The fact is, writing setting is tricky. Sometimes we relay too much information, sometimes too little. Sometimes we share fluff instead of what's truly meaningful to the story.
As we look at ways that we can work at making the settings of our stories come alive, here are 7 basics that can help:
1. Refer to the setting more than once.
Most writers will remember to ground readers in the setting at the beginning of the scene. We often give at least a brief description of where our characters are at. But then as the scene progresses our characters often end up acting on a blank stage.
We have to remember throughout the scene to continue to keep our setting details alive for our readers by making subtle references. If our hero is sitting on the beach, we need to briefly describe the beach in the first few sentences of the scene, but then as the scene unfolds we can refer to the sound of the waves, or the squawk of the sea gull, or the stench of the seaweed. We need to keep hinting at the setting details throughout the scene, NOT just in the opening lines.
2. Use bite-size details.
Don’t dump large chunks of description in one place. Readers' eyes will usually skim a paragraph that is mostly or all description. We don’t want a large paragraph to sound like we took it straight from the Sears catalog. Instead we're better off dishing out details in bite-sizes which are more palatable and digestible for modern readers.
3. Weave description through the point-of-view character.
We should never randomly describe anything within our books. And of course we can’t describe everything. Rather, we need to be strategic in what we pick. One way to decide what deserves space on the page is to ask this question: What would THIS particular character notice? What would he see through his worldview, personality, past experiences, etc.?
For example, my hero isn’t going to notice that the color of my heroine’s dress resembles buttercups (unless he’s a florist). If he pays attention to the color at all, he’ll call it yellow. Now the heroine might notice the color AND the lace at the hem AND the embroidered collar, because she’s a woman and her dear grandmother lovingly sewed the dress for her.
4. Use description to set the mood.
Another way to pick what to describe is to decide what mood you want for the scene. If the mood is spooky, then you might point out the rancid odor of the decaying fish among the tangles of slimy seaweed. If it’s a happy scene you might describe the way the sunshine makes the sand sparkle like diamonds.
5. Pick items to describe that are important to the plot.
When I read a detailed description about one particular item, as a reader I like to think that "prop" is significant, that somehow it will come into play later in the book. Otherwise why would the writer spend so much time describing it?
Sometimes, as a literary technique, we can focus the camera lens more closely on the setting or a particular item when it’s important to the plot for purposes of symbolism, foreshadowing, or strategy. But we need to be careful not to lead our readers on with descriptions that don't matter.
6. Use all five senses to bring the setting to life.
Most writers can paint a vivid picture with words and SHOW a scene through the EYES of their character. But it takes much more work to add in smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. And it’s even harder to work in those ancillary senses without saying something like, “The room smelled like burnt coffee.” Instead we should strive to eliminate the actual sensory words and instead say something like, “The bitterness of the burnt coffee was so strong in the air she could almost drink it.”
While we can’t always avoid using the actual sensory word, the experience becomes stronger when we carefully select specific words that can evoke our readers’ sensory memories.
7. Be as specific as possible.
We can add authenticity (especially historical writers) when we are as precise as possible with what we’re naming and describing within our settings. We can say, “The drunkard had a cup of beer” or we can say, “The drunkard swigged a tankard of ale.”
The more we can specifically name details—whether particular kind of car, flower, tree, book, etc—then the more the more vivid the story becomes in our readers’ minds.
What did I miss? What else do you think is important when describing settings? Which of the above points do you struggle with the most?