I want to start off by apologizing for not posting a tip last Tuesday. I should have had something prepared in advance since I knew the con was that weekend, but it was just such a busy week. I’d rather miss a post than publish a half-baked one. So here is last Tuesday’s tip today.
Let’s take a look at setting. “Look” is only one of the five senses we’ll be using to describe the world your character lives in.
What Should you Describe?
When introducing your readers to your world, it helps to think of the five senses and the 5 W’s.
Who: This is your character. How does your setting relate to them? Is this their home? What do they notice about their setting?
What: What does it look like? What landmarks, features, buildings, exist in this landscape? What items are important to your setting: a chipped coffee mug? A stack of books? A photograph?
When: This could be the year, season, time of day,etc. You always want to establish this early on.
Where: Does your novel take place in Colorado? Another galaxy? New Zealand? Psuedo-New Zealand?
Why: Why did you choose this place? Is the sunny east coast or an isolated mountain village the best setting for your novel?
Five Senses: Use your sensory details. But remember, the sights, smells, and sounds should be coming from your POV, not you. If your character is deaf, do not describe the sounds of a busy city. If your character is a child, don’t point out things that would not be at their eye level. Also don’t describe something as being soft or hard until your character has touched it. Describe things as they encounter them.
Often, especially with new writers, descriptions of scenery are dumped into one paragraph like a dump truck unloading dirt. It might be tempting to tell your readers everything you know about your setting, but this is called info dumping. Instead of enhancing the plot, the scenery slows down the action, bores the reader, or distracts from the character or plot. Avoid info dumps at all cost.
- Only describe what the reader has to know to understand the setting.
- If your descriptions are a block of text or a paragraph, this is probably an info dump. Cut what you don’t need or spread out your description throughout the narration, so that there is something separating it. Describe the setting while your character moves throughout the world so your setting doesn’t stop the plot but flows with it.
Things to Avoid
- Info dumping. See above.
- Remember to describe the setting from the character’s perspective. What would they notice? A major pet peeve of mine is when authors describe the scenery as being “exotic” from their character’s POV. Don’t describe your world as being exotic if it isn’t for them. What you want your reader to find unusual (double moons, red lakes, man-eating trees, giant cats) will be common place to your character. You don’t need to force the image down your readers’ throats like a funnel at a frat party. A sky with two moons hovering over a red sea will sound unusual enough without your character pointing it out as being strange.
- Not enough setting. Yes, it’s true. While a majority of writers seem to suffer from info dumping, there are those whose characters are floating in space. I recently read a sample of a book where I could not get a grasp of where the characters were.
- Don’t overdue it. Have you ever red a book where the character seems to have control over the weather? It doesn’t always have to rain when the character is sad or storm during a battle. On the contrary, say you were writing a story about a missing person. They find the body on a sunny Easter morning. It may be more eerie to find a body on a sunny day rather than a rainy one. This also adds realism.
- Do not start your story with a sunrise or sunset–unless this is an important image that has something to do with your plot. I once checked out three books from the library that all began with the rising of the sun. Not only is this overdone, but it’s often an unnecessary detail. If the sunrise is an important part of your setting, put it in, but try to avoid starting your book this way.
Creating Your Own World
If there is one reason I don’t believe in a god it’s because of this: No one can make a world in seven days. It’s taken me a year to fully develop my own. If you’re setting takes place in a real place, my suggestion to you would be to go there–especially if it’s somewhere tropical like Hawaii. For those of you creating your own world, you have a lot more planning to do.
- Make it believable. Understand the laws of nature and science. Say your characters land on a planet with no oxygen. What does a planet without oxygen look like? What are the effects of metal when exposed to low levels of oxygen? What about the opposite? Your characters live on a planet with higher levels of oxygen. Not only would they have more energy than we do, but they would also have very large bugs. Research, research, research.
- Create a world that enhances your plot. Don’t create a boring environment that will stunt your story. Make it vivid. Create a landscape that challenges your protagonist. Your character has been exiled from his tropical kingdom. On his journey to a new home, make him walk across a desert or a frozen tundra instead of a lush, green valley.
Plan your setting like you would your characters and your plot. Make it vivid, make it believable, but most of all, make it the way you want it.