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, paranormal, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Setting: Creating Unique Settings

Writers can use worldbuilding techniques to create unique settings.

Start With the Basics

There are several important aspects of setting to consider:

  • Layout and geography
  • What lies beyond the immediate setting
  • Politics, laws, and governing system
  • Culture and traditions
  • Weather
  • Local plants and animals
  • Jobs, economy, imports/exports
  • History, enemies, and allies
  • Folklore, urban legends, etc.
  • Details only locals would know
  • The hero’s feelings and opinions about the place

All of these elements will affect a character’s views, way of thinking, actions, choices, and lifestyle and may affect the path of a storyline.

One you have at least one item for each element in the list, consider how each one might affect the character or story, and whether that effect is beneficial and moves the story forward or if it simply adds another layer of richness.

These elements can be integrated into a setting as minor or major elements, depending on what the scene needs. Folklore may be relevant in a non-realistic storyline out a child who’s gone missing under mysterious circumstances, but only mentioned in passing in a realistic setting where adults reminisce about childhood fears. A mixture of major and minor elements give a setting depth and uniqueness.

Develop the Details

Details make the difference in worldbuilding, whether high fantasy or the corner coffee shop. The level of detail often depends on the genre. Unless the color of every mug in a coffee shop is relevant to the story, leave it out.

Developing an intricate system of magical spell-creation ot introducing a non-realistic world readers are not familiar with requires a higher level of detail so the reader can understand the process or place.

Details MUST be relevant, no matter the genre.

Let’s use food as an example to see how something relatively simple and easy to overlook can be an important detail in providing information about a character through setting.

What characters eat can indicate location, such as putting coleslaw on pulled pork sandwiches, which is common in the south but a strange combination in the southwest United States.). Food can reveal income, such as a character having a cupboard full of Ramen noodle packets or a collection of delicious wines in a built in wine fridge. Food could also inform the reader about personality quirks. If all the food in a character’s fridge is yellow, the reader will start considering why.

Irrelevant details have the potential of confusing readers because they cause them to look for hints or twists where there aren’t any. These can later appear to be plot holes or sloppy writing. Remember the advice that if you mention a gun in scene 1, it better be fired by someone by the end of the story!

Add Layers

Once you have the foundation of your setting and world and are starting to add details, do so in logical layers.

Consider a real-world worldbuilding example: Choose the city relevant to the story line>choose a professional that makes sense for the location and character>choose a neighborhood with access to amenities that will help progress the story>choose frequently visited locations that provide opportunities for conversations, action, or conflict>develop hobbies that allow for character growth>etc.

Now consider a paranormal worldbuilding example: Choose a mythology base>tweak the base to suit major plot points>develop main powers/beasts that provide conflict between two or more groups>develop rules for powers/beasts that keep winning from being too easy>develop goals for each opposing group>develop individual goals that clash with others’ goals of the group’s goals>develop individual power/beast uniqueness that needs to develop> etc.

In every genre there is a logical progression to worldbuilding and every element added should impact the characters and story in a meaningful way

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

Setting: Types of Settings

There are two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.

Backdrop Settings

Backdrop settings are not terribly important to the story. The scene utilizing a backdrop setting could take place almost anywhere without changing the general dynamic or meaning. They are often transition scenes where minimal information is exchange or some detail or piece of information is revealed to the reader.

These are settings like hallways, cafes, sidewalks, etc. The allow for quick entry and exit and are often familiar settings to the reader, so they need minimal description or attention. Not having to spend page space on setting description or explanation allows the focus to stay on the content of the scene.

Integral Settings

Integral settings are settings where time and place influence the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t be the same if set in a shoe store. The way the setting influences a scene should be somewhat obvious, in the sense that the characters being in the scene feels right to the reader and the details of the setting help the reader more fully experience whatever is happening.

These types of settings need more in-depth description and development. Take the time to point out important details that bring the scene to life, such as the cleanliness of the room, how dim or bright it is, does it feel oppressive or free, colors that reflect personality, etc. Don’t describe every detail, but do point out those that help the reader get to know the character better or interpret what is happening or what information is being given more fully.

Integral settings are usually recurring settings or settings used for important scenes in the story. When these settings are first introduced there will often be more detail and focus on how the setting affects the character or mood. This type of detail isn’t necessary every time the characters visit the setting, however. In repeat scenes, only mention details that have changed, ones you think the reader may need a reminder of because they will play an important role in some way, or those that a character may have missed or missed the significance of before.

Description of settings should most often be kept at a minimum. Give enough detail that you feel confident that reader can form a basic mental image and let them fill in the blanks based on their own experiences. Trying to hard to force the reader to create an exact mental picture of a setting is exhausting for the reader.

Remember to evaluate what type of scene you’re working with before adding description and details.

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

Setting: Why Setting Matters

Setting is not just a location for characters to interact.

Setting is critical to a story’s success for several reasons:

Setting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. If a character is taking a physical journey, setting can be used to created physical obstacles, such as a hot desert with a long stretch of no services or fellow travelers when a vehicle breaks down. It can also provide an environment for success, such as a calm and peaceful park where a character can collect her thoughts after a stressful or traumatic moment.

Setting can also affect a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. Consider the differences in how two characters may think and act when one grew up on an organic farm and volunteered at a no-kill pet shelter and another character grew up on a ranch where animals provided food and income and nature was often seen as a enemy to survival.

Setting also helps to establish the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. Picture a character walking down the aisles of a bookstore. How does the experience differ when the shelves and books are nicely arranged, there is plenty of light, and cheery music is playing in the background, compared to if the store is dark and musty with scattered stacks of book, the only sound the character’s footsteps and those of someone following him just out of sight? Details of the setting can make all the difference in how an experience will be perceived, both by the character and the reader.

Setting also affects the characters’ choices and actions, depending on how it impacts the scene or story. If a character has a clear view of escape from a dangerous situation, she will most likely take it. If, however, her view is blocked by other people or objects in the way, the decision will take longer to make because she has to consider multiple options. The possibility of a wrong decision or inaction increases. Also consider how a room filled with people all staring, waiting for an answer will provide more pressure to give in or lie as opposed to a one-on-one meeting in a welcoming and bright office.

Lastly, setting can also act as a character, either as an antagonist, such as in a survival situation, or as a protagonist, such as a garden that provides solace and comfort to an introverted person who fears the unknown.

Carefully consider the details of setting and how it will impact all elements of a story.