Monday, November 9, 2009
Bringing Our Settings To Life
This picture wouldn't be near as interesting without the feet. It would just be a picture of a big, ugly mud puddle. The feet make us feel the dirt and the water, the glee in the young boy's heart as mud cakes to his toes, and the freedom of summer. It may even create anticipation of what the poor boy's mother is going to do when he comes in the house and leaves muddy footprints across her newly installed white wall-to-wall carpet. Have you ever been reading a book and come across a descriptive passage about setting and skimmed right over it? I have. Many times. So how do we describe our settings without boring our readers? Well, according to Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction, the key is to bring the setting to life through our characters eyes. Much like this photo is brought to life by the feet running through the mud, our settings can come alive by how they affect our characters. Ask yourself this: What emotions does the setting invoke in my characters? How do my characters' feelings about this place change over time? Do my characters' opinions about the world they live in affect how they view this setting? If you can answer these questions and convey the result, you'll be off to a great start. This is a struggle for me. I have to work hard to make my settings come alive. Just ask my beta readers. Lucky for me, Maass devotes a whole chapter to this and includes some invaluable exercises to help us through this. How do you make your settings come alive?
Posted by Susan R. Mills at 8:00 AM
Labels: The Fire
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I'm a wee bit wordy and have to control my urge to over narrate. I've been trying to write dialogue first and layer in settings and action tags afterwards.
I hear you with this post! I often skip description in books and when I write, I usually skip those parts too. I'm working on the edits to include more now. Great advice.
During revisions I keep asking myself what is my mc feeling, almost like a mantra. That helps me see things through his eyes.
I like your idea of keeping the mc's opinions in the forefront of your thinking and how that colors what they see.
I LOVE settings--especially writing them. My stories are heavy on setting (especially one)--hopefully in a good way! This is probably because my muse is nature, so I put a lot of natural imagery in my stories. It makes me happy. :0)
Oh, I SO struggle with setting descriptions!! I even bore myself when writing them. LOL!
Then I usually cut chunks of it.
Describing settings is hard work, but I really enjoy the process. I had worked as an interior designer, so maybe that attention to detail helps in this situation.
I also tend to skim over long segments of description, even though personally, I love description. In my own writing, I try not to add descriptive detail just for the sake of it. It has to mean something for the overall plot, but especially to main character. I want my reader to experience it with him, not separate from him. I endeavor to make it a sensory experience, not just a list of surrounding, detached details.
Yup, I skim over settings...sometimes the setting doesn't seem to add anything to the story so I think, what's the point?
However, I really struggle with this in my writing. I often go back and realize I haven't described a single background-other than the couch my MC sat on. LOL :)
I skim description a lot, that's why I struggle with it. I like when you said, "our settings cancome alive by how they affect our characters." I never thought about it this way. Now I need to go back and review all my setting descriptions.
I'm a skimmer too. Maybe if the description involved chocolate rivers, mountains, or fields, that would keep me more intuned. I think part of my skimming problem is that I read fast and kind of know which parts are non-critical and glaze over them. Very rude of me to that poor author that sweated to make a beautiful scene. :O)
I like to write descriptions of the scenes around my characters, but my issue is tying the scene in with what the character is feeling instead of simply describing it.
Really have to work on that.
I skim over descriptions too. The ones that I don't skim over are the ones that are so masterfully blended into the story that I barely notice I'm just reading description. I love Anita Shreve and Ian McEwan's settings. In my own writing it's so hard to tell whether I've put in too much! I always need to have someone else critique. :)
I'm not great at settings. In fact, unless I feel like it's absolutely necessary to the scene, I'll avoid describing it. Even then, it usually gets done during my revisions, and I have to make myself do it.
I spent hours last night researching so I could accurately depict a historical temple. Hours! And then I wrote one page. Blecch. But I also spend a lot of time making sure the reader can imagine the scenery. The trick is getting that description down to bare bones so it doesn't bog down the story.
BTW- There's a present for you on my blog. Happy Monday!
This is the most difficult part of writing for me. Sadly I have not mastered this technique. Trying to depict weather, landscape through my character seems strained for me and not authentic. I have alot to learn here.
The best descriptive passages are ones I can personally relate to. My goal is to attempt to incorporate all of the senses...
I write very spare so the challenge for me is to make sure I've said enough to make readers feel like they are there. I've got the full setting in my head, but only the highlights make it to the page. Hopefully just enough to offer a taste, not a stomach ache :)
I try to keep my settings short and sweet because I, too, am a skimmer. I try to include it in the narration in pieces, but a few chunks of it slip in here and there.
I'm still working on that. But I must admit, there have been books that I have skimmed over the description. I agree with Matthew, if the character is feeling it, it is more interesting.
"How they affect our characters." That speaks volumes to me. I'm enjoying this series, Susan. I read this book, but refreshers are so awesome!
I bring settings to life by integrating them with the actions of my characters. I think that gives them a life of their own.
I've been guilty of being wordy and boring in the past. Lately I've been trying to ask myself how my character sees the setting and how it affects them and it's really helped to bring the setting to life. It's ended up telling a lot about the setting without even really saying much directly about it.
I guess I think of the setting as another character if setting is important. Sometimes setting is just a back drop of the story so I don't pay much mind to it.
Sounds like so many of us skim over descriptions. I try to avoid long ones and spatter them with the emotions of the character.Can't wait for my book to come--any day!
I'm guilty of skimming over descriptions in writing and reading. When I'm writing, it's only the descriptions of settings that evoke emotions that really get put in. Intense settings--scary settings--romantic settings make the cut. Everyday settings? Meh--maybe a sentence. Who cares what someone's house looks like? One of my beta readers keeps telling me to add more descriptions but it's nearly painful.
I can't answer this question because I really don't know. I'm a skimmer.
But thank you for referencing that book - I'll study it carefully!
I struggle with setting. I avoid long passages of description because I hate reading them, but I need to get better at weaving in setting with everything else.
I read another great post today about setting details, but more about how to set the mood. And I think there are lots of great ways to include small unique details that help to set the mood. The details we include really need to have a purpose of some kind, whether to help with mood, or move along the plot, or something!
Ah, I needed some good news today. I think I've got this one licked! Even my preview readers have commented that I really paint a good picture! I do put lots of my MC's emotion into my description. I think I succeed at getting my readers to view it through her eyes, while refraining from putting in too much description and not enough story.
(Oh yeah... I AM going to Buy. The. Book.)
This is a great post! I have tremendous trouble with settings. I do try to make it matter to the characters, but I'm sure I've left out important details.
Recently, in my NaNo story, the MC walked into her murdered best friend's room and the first thing she saw was the stuffed dog she gave her when they were little kids...
I skim the settings too, more than I should, but they can be so boring, the house was this color with this and that... ugh. However, I guess that writer isn't doing his/her job then.
I've got to get that book!
Making our settings IS difficult. I think we have to make our settings interesting in some way, or if it's not interesting, then we should give the bare minimum detail and rely on other aspects of the story. There are some books where the setting was almost like one of the main characters (a Nora Robert's book set in Alaska is coming to mind - very interesting), then there are others that I don't even remember where it was set because the story was so good I didn't care where the characters were. My current setting includes monkeys (just once, so don't freak out), so it has definitely been fun to write.
I struggle with this too. I HATE describing stuff. I always suscribe to the less is more school of thought. Whether or not these scenes are actually breathing, well, I dunno. Probably not.
Wow, Jade, really insightful comment. Me be tired.
Man! You and I have sooooo much in common. :) I struggle with this daily. I am learning from reading this book though.
Setting is just so important. We can't and shouldn't leave anything out. The reader is taken to our worlds we create from the setting and description of it.
Hey Susan. Isn't that interesting that our WIP'S sound some alike? Great minds??!! Another great post. Thanks! :)
Making setting some alive is a true art form I think. I try to make any description of setting first and foremost necessary. Some books I have read seem to like to throw in description for the sake of it. which is why I skip over it. I want to know what is happening. But if what is happening is involved in or shown by and through the description in someway then I will read it. I try to do this in my work.
I'm a setting skimmer too! I try to focus on dialogue and people interacting when I write because that's what I like to read. But I agree, if setting descriptions tie into the character's feelings they are much more interesting to read.
Gasp! You skim descriptions?!! I'm one of those read every last word kind of gals. And descriptions are my favorite. Ok, so I'm weird.
I skim too. This is the third time this week I've heard about Donald's book. Might have to get me a copy. :)
I make em come alive by colorin em with magination, and then yellin bout it.
I'm just learnin I guess,lol.
SUSAN, I just realized, you were Ronis' pick for the "Hot Dawg" blogger award, did you ever get it.Ronis' pic is Susan at
I think I'm more of a dialogue girl than a setting person.
I struggle a lot with description as a writer, probably because I'm the sort of reader that skims over the description to get to the talking and stuff (I've actually reread books and been shocked at the contents of paragraphs I didn't realized I'd only half read.)
I basically try to limit the description to things I think the reader really cares about, or to make it a humorous or surprising description, to make it feel worth it.
Good questions Susan... and like you I am struggling with that too. Thanks for these posts!
Great post! I can feel that slime from here.
When I make an effort to include setting through my character's eyes, I am always happy with the result. My problem is that sometimes I don't add enough. I'm working on it!
So when I first saw the picture, I thought the legs were saplings. Yeah. Guess I need coffee. Your wonderful description set me straight.
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I know I have difficulty in making my settings come alive through character's eyes. I always feel like it comes across contrived when I try it. Generally in my first drafts, I tend to do really quick snippets of description, mostly because a great deal of it comes from research I'm going to need to do after it's all complete.
It gets difficult too when you describe a setting you've never been to before. I'm so thankful for the Internet and all the pictures and videos I've been able to see to help me.
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