revision 9-1-1 for novels: setting and description

I decided I would not only talk about setting but also description. Or maybe they are one in the same. Some people say setting can be as important as a character in your book. It really depends on the story, but whatever role setting plays in your novel, make sure you’re not making one of these common mistakes.

plopping

  • This is when you open the book, you happily plod along with the story, and then you read three paragraphs or pages of setting before the story continues again.
  • Solution: To me, setting works more successfully when it is weaved into your story. Not plopped. Some of you are chronic ploppers. I see the tendency more in historical fiction and fantasy than contemporary stuff. So if you’ve got one of those, you might want to be extra vigilant about spotting areas where the story stops for setting. (Back to back paragraphs of description is a clue). While it’s perfectly okay to establish the enviroment for your scenes, what you want to avoid is halting the story’s progression altogether. Find ways to weave the setting in snippets in the appropriate places so the pace doesn’t flag unnaturally. Flagging pace doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading (especially for kids or teens with short attention spans). The best way to learn how to weave is to study the masters. Find published books that best match your novel’s tone (same genre preferably) and see how they do it. Look at the spots where setting was mentioned. Was the character interacting with his environment? Was it incorporated into natural dialogue? Was there a descriptive sentence here and there sprinkled throughout? Weave. Don’t plop.

interior decorator at large

  • This is when there’s too much setting in general. Every detail is put on the page as though I’m suddenly reading from the pages of House Beautiful.
  • Solution: lose the interior decorator in you and let your reader’s own imagination work a little. Let the reader participate in fillling in the blanks. When it’s his story, too, he’ll be more comfortable in the world he’s set up, won’t he? Include only details which will “set” the scene. We don’t need to know the exact hue of every piece of furniture in the room or the wood grade used for the floors. For example, if the place is run down, you might mention peeling paint. A cock-eyed door. The cobwebs adorning the ceiling. But there’s no need to tell me about the threadbare carpet, the broken chair in the corner, the rats crawling the area, AND the rotted wood, etc., If the place is absolutely gorgeous, perhaps only one metaphor will do the trick. Or a few touches of the gentle breeze, the sea air, and footprints in the sand. Sketch the setting. Let the reader paint in his own mural.

lost in space

  • This is the complete opposite of interior decorating. The setting is completely lacking. I have no idea where the characters are. So they float in space in my mind. Perhaps they are even wearing spacesuits. 🙂
  • Solution: Have you rushed into dialogue? Did you find yourself working so hard to keep the reader’s attention, you forgot to mention where your characters are? Logistics can be important whenever you begin a new scene or change environments. Your reader will want to put your characters somewhere in his brain before he can really tune in to the conversation or the action that is taking place. Watch your scene changes and look for openers that don’t “set” the scene appropriately. If you’re writing contemporary fiction, look for this even more closely. I notice it a lot in modern-day stuff. If your characters are supposed to be somewhere, make sure you put them there.

jackhammering

  • This is a comment about description in general. Sometimes descriptions of anything, be it character, setting, objects, etc., sound jackhammered in. As if the writer didn’t know where to put in the information. Examples might be an introduction of a character who happens to be hanging from the cliff. We learn about the sweater he’s wearing and the color of his hair. Or maybe…In the dialogue, someone says, “Johnny, are you taking Daddy’s Porcshe 911 with the V8 engine and the 22’s to the prom?”. These examples are extreme, but you get the idea. Forced in descriptions never sound right. And you’re fooling yourself if you think a reader won’t notice it.
  • Solution: Read every part where you’ve described something. Ask yourself, is the detail relevant to the scene at that moment in time? Is there mental space for it given the circumstances? Does the information add to the story in any way? Or can the reader come up with whatever they like and the story will still be great? Another question: would my characters naturally say that in dialogue or thought? If the answer is no to any of this, don’t do it. Forced in descriptions put your book’s authenticity at risk. Learn when to describe and when not to. Give up some control if you must and let the reader take over on the stuff that isn’t really essential.

What’s the big idea?

  • Setting and description should serve your story, not hinder it. If you find yourself writing something that feels unnatural, STOP. Create situations where the setting can be weaved. Learn how to weave by studying published works–books you’d like to be able to write yourself. If you find yourself so excited by the beautiful scenery you’ve created, ask yourself if you’ve gone overboard. Are you trying to force your exact image of something onto your reader? Is it that important for your reader to see it just like you do? Finally, whenever you’re describing anything, don’t jackhammer it in because you can’t find a better place for it. Evaluate the importance of the detail and if you don’t need it, lose it. If you do, push yourself to weave it in naturally, or risk the authenticity of your story-telling.

Read more articles in the Revision 9-1-1 series, http://www.cynthealiu.com/category/revision/.

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Happy revising!

Cynthea

3 thoughts on “revision 9-1-1 for novels: setting and description

  1. I just wanted to say I’m really enjoying the RLGL right now. I just wanted to say thank you for your advice in 9-l-l for novels: setting and description. I’ve read so many good books and gone to many conferences, but your suggestions in this section were eye-openers. I went back and looked at the beginning chapter of my YA murder mystery and was able to cut 12 pages down to 7, so the body is found much sooner. It has really made a huge difference. Also, I love the RLGL because when we can only email Snoop 1 page at a time, it really forces me to examine how compelling that page really is–thank you so much for your help. I’m so happy I found your website!

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