The following is a guest post by Writer’s Digest author Mary Buckham, author of A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings. She is also the author of the USA Today bestselling Invisible Recruits series, which has been touted for its unique voice, high action, and rich emotion. Mary lives in Washington State with her husband and, when not crafting a new novel of her own, she travels the country researching settings and teaching other writers.
My writing students come from all over the world and write in every genre and sub-genre imaginable. While their writing is often solid, sometimes it lacks key elements. This is hardly surprising since there are so many things to juggle in creating a good story. One element is key, however. When handled incorrectly, it makes the difference between a story that sings and one that flops.
That secret key element? Setting. Setting can empower a story on so many levels, but until you realize exactly how to use setting effectively, it can create unnecessary stumbling blocks. Stumbling blocks that can stop any reader—including an agent or editor—cold.
Here are the most common setting mistakes I see repeated over and over again, as well as a few insights on how to correct the challenges.
Mistake #1: No (or very little) setting on the page.
It is so easy to get caught up in the other elements of your story—plot, character, POV, etc.—that you forget your reader is not familiar with the setting. Readers cannot see, or experience, your setting unless you give them anchoring details. Beta readers and critique partners often miss this particular mistake because you’ve set your story somewhere familiar to them.
Example: Bob rushed into the nearest Winn-Dixie (or Piggy Wiggly or Harris Teeter) not expecting to see his ex-wife. She chased him down the aisles, grabbing an apple and tossing it at his back as he rounded aisle three.
Now, if your reader is from the Southern U.S., you probably know these are the names of chain grocery stores, so that particular reader can visualize a character standing among food items by the store name alone. But for someone not familiar with these regional stores, other readers are going to be pulled out of the story wondering where the ex found an apple to lob. The more this happens, the easier it is for the reader to disengage from the story.
Solution: Every time you change the setting location in a story, a reader will allow you to slow your pacing enough to anchor them into the scene. We’re talking one or two sentences max, not paragraphs of details, or you’ll encounter the second biggest setting challenge.
Mistake #2: Including too much setting, which impacts your pacing and makes your story grind to a halt.
This often happens when you love your setting. Maybe you are writing a historical, steampunk, or sci-fi/fantasy novel and have researched to make sure your information is accurate, or you’ve created such a strong world setting that you must share it all. While some genres allocate more word space to setting than others, simply because the core reading audience enjoys world building, there is a point where the reader will set the book down rather than wade through one more room, city, or mountain description.
Solution: Always keep in mind that a little can go a long way. Your setting information must matter to the story. If in doubt, leave it out.
A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting provides a straightforward,
easy-to-follow approach to utilizing setting as a tool for enhancing
other elements of your writing. By providing examples from authors
in varying genres, author Mary Buckham gives novice writers and experts
alike the tools they need to revolutionize their writing.
Mistake #3: Vague details that don’t allow the reader to see what you, as the author, see in your mind’s eye.
This issue arises when you, the author, assume your reader sees your setting like you do. After all, you know what New York City or Kansas looks like, and you’ve mentioned where the scene is unfolding. Isn’t that enough? Or, your setting details are so vague that when you write about a “mountain” in Kansas you assume that your reader will visualize the 3,360ft Mount Sunflower. But a “mountain” to a reader in Florida might mean the 312ft Sugarloaf Mountain, and to another reader in Alaska it might mean the 20,310ft Denali.
Solution: Make your setting details matter. Be specific if the setting or setting elements will play a larger role in the story. If they do not—if your reader is simply driving past the mountain—a less specific reference can suffice, such as noticing that a mountain in Kansas looked nothing like the soaring peaks of Colorado, Wyoming, or the majestic ones at home in western Montana.
Mistake #4: Forgetting we live in a sensory world.
This mistake deprives your reader of the power of experiencing your world on a deeper level—the kind of level they’ll remember long after they finish your book. Sound, taste, texture, and smell are often left off the page as the writer only focuses on visual descriptions.
Solution: When you introduce a new setting location in your story, take the opportunity to succinctly thread in a few key sensory details. Keep in mind to not use the same details in the same pattern each time you use this approach. So one chapter might open with a visual cue and a pair of sound references; the next could begin with the feel of the wind and heat, as well as the rasp of sneakers against too-dry grass.
Writing is an art, much like painting. The words you choose to
describe your characters, scenes, settings, and so on—in fiction
and nonfiction—need to illustrate the vision you have in your mind
and capture the attention of readers. Word Painting, Revised Edition
is an inspiring examination of description in its many forms.
Mistake #5: Forgetting that different characters are not going to experience the same setting in the same way.
This challenge arises most often when a writer is describing a setting from their POV instead of their character’s. So someone new to an area refers to the same details as someone who has lived there a long time. Or every character notices the same details in a room instead of showing the reader more through the eyes of each individual character. Each character could reveal something they specifically notice because of their background and history.
Solution: Learning to write Deep POV means getting into the skin, background, experiences, mindset and emotions of each of your characters. To a mountain climber, the face of a mountain might be described as open, a chimney or a clear class 5 climb; whereas someone with a fear of heights might see a mountain as a nose-bleed, gnarly rock or suicidal steep.
Don’t leave your reader lost or confused because you’ve committed one of these five mistakes. Setting can take your story from okay to wow! with a little practice and intention.
How about you? Are you guilty of any of these setting mistakes?