Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Setting: Show vs. Tell

Show, Don’t Tell is a common bit of advice in creative writing. It is especially important when describing setting.

Explaining Description

Young or new writers often try to tell the reader too much about the environment a character inhabits. This often happened by giving one concrete detail of the setting then explaining what this detail means, such as, “The sofa had a tear in the arm rest, which had been there for years because Agnes’s mother couldn’t afford to buy and new one and never had enough time to attempt fixing it with her meager sewing skills.”

This might sound fine at first glance, but there are better ways to share this information with the reader without being so wordy and direct. Consider what this piece of description is telling the reader:

  • The family isn’t wealthy
  • The mother works a lot
  • The mother lacks traditional “homemaking” skills
  • The house/contents are worn and in need of repair

To make description effective and well-integrated into the story, avoiding big blocks of “telling,” its important to consider how the character experiences the information you’re trying to communicate to the reader.

Here are some examples of how this same information can be shown and integrated into the bigger story.

Agnes collapsed onto the couch. She blindly reached across the arm of the couch in search of the remote and her fingertip caught on the ever-present hole in the fabric. She frowned at is, just as her mother always did. Agnes wished she her after school job was enough to help her mother buy a new couch, but even with her measly paychecks, they were still barely covering the bills. The one time Agnes had suggested she quit school to work more still made her shiver when she thought about it. Her mother’s slap had been completely unexpected. She’d yelled that she wasn’t working double shifts just so Agnes could end up just like her. A strange mixture of hurt and shame filled Agnes as the memory swept over her. She stared at the hole. Maybe she could fix it. She scoffed and shook her head. With what sewing skills? Her mom had been too busy working as a kid to learn something like that.

In this paragraph, the same information is given to the reader, but through Agnes’s thoughts and experiences. It delivered over time, at a more natural pace, as well.

Overindulging in Description

Description should not be overindulgent. It should be relevant to the story and situation. Long passages of elaborate description may have been the style in past eras, but in today’s world readers have shortened attention spans because there are so many pressures on time. Building a detailed setting with endless description will bore most readers and may even cause them to abandon the book. Trim down description of setting to what is relevant to the scene and to what provides useful information to the reader.

Description should orient the reader in the setting, letting them explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character, his or her life, what is important to a character, etc.

Consider how to reveal information about a family’s dynamics through setting by having a teen look through the kitchen cupboards. If the sole box of cereal in the cupboard is on the verge of going stale that reader will begin to question how fit the parents are, whether there is enough money to meet basic needs, or if there are issues of abuse or neglect taking place.

You might present the opposite information to the reader by describing cupboards filled with healthy foods and ingredients and the character’s favorite items. This will suggest at least comfortable wealth, attentive and educated guardians, a caring environment, etc. Most likely, your character will have a home life that is somewhere in between these two extremes, but it only takes a few carefully crafted sentences to show that to the reader.

Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than directly telling the readers where the story is happening as information separate from the story.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

The importance of setting in fiction

Setting is not just a location for characters to interact. It should be relevant to the story and/or scene.

BeachHouse StepsSetting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. Consider how the chosen scene can be interacted with by the characters, how it might change actions or decisions, or how it affects the characters in the moment.

Setting affects a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. If a scene momentary, this may not apply, but a scene that is used multiple times or is a main feature of the story should have some kind of impact on how the character sees the world, themselves, and others as well as how they think and make decisions.

Setting establishes the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. A guy on the street waving at a character standing in her bedroom will be perceived very differently depending on whether it’s a nice sunny day in summer or it’s a stormy, rainy night where no one should be out and about at midnight.

Setting affects characters’ choices and actions depending on how it impacts the scene or story

Setting can act as a character, either an antagonist or protagonist in some situations like survival stories or when the weather, climate, or location significantly impact how the story progresses and the character develops.

There are two main types of setting: backdrop and integral

 

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Backdrop settings are not terribly important to the story most of the time. These are incidental settings chosen because a scene needs to take place somewhere rather than out in the ether. These types of scenes could take place anywhere without changing the dynamic or meaning, such as hallways, cafes, sidewalks, etc. These normally need minimal description or attention.

Integral settings are settings where time and place influence the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. The story and characters would be different if the setting were changed. For example, Animal Farm wouldn’t be the same if set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development to integrate them into the story and character experience fully. These types of settings are usually recurring settings or settings used for important scenes in the story.

When choosing settings, consider their impact on the story and characters.

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