Stage Three: Setting and Description Issues
Welcome to Day Thirteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop.As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while now, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.
Today, let’s look at ways to deepen our world building and setting
1. Check for Clarity of Setting
If there’s not enough detail to set the scene, it can turn into talking heads in a white room, with no sense of where the characters are. Examine how each scene starts:
- Have the characters changed location since the last scene?
- Have they changed times?
- Are details introduced right away to ground readers in the scene?
- Do readers know who's in the scene?
- Does the setting make sense?
- Are people interacting with the world or is it just a backdrop?
- Are there enough specific details that show the setting, or is it too general for a clear picture?
- Is too much focus spent on the setting descriptions?
- Does the point of view character share her thoughts and views on the world around her as the scene unfolds?
(Here are more articles on world building)
Add details to any weak scenes to help readers picture where the characters are and what’s going on around them. Unsure what to add? Try:
- If it’s a new location, add something in the opening paragraph to show where the characters are now. “We pulled into the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly…”
- If time has passed, mention how much. “Three hours later…”
- Think about what details will matter to the scene—what’s important for readers to know right away? What in the scene will be used to resolve or create the conflict in that scene? Is the anything that can be noticed to foreshadow an event or shed light on a character’s personality?
- Give a quick overview of who’s in the scene so they don’t appear of out the blue later (unless that’s the point).
- Show details in the scene that have significance to the POV character.
- Show (and explain if necessary) details in the scene that are vital to understanding the problem of that scene.
2. Examine How the Characters Interact With the World or Setting
The more seamless our setting details feel, the more immersive the world will feel. Having our characters interact with that world is a great way to show the setting without stopping the story to describe it. Look for places where:
- Characters can touch or use objects
- Characters can react to temperature or the environment
- Characters can remark on smells, both good and bad
- Characters have or share an opinion about the world, both good and bad
- Characters can experience an important detail about the world (such as a being hassled by police in a story about a corrupt police force).
(Here are more articles on setting)
3. Check for the Senses
While you certainly don’t want to approach setting like a fill-in-the-blanks template, if you know description is a weak area for you, it’s not a bad idea to look through each scene for details that involve all the senses. Not every detail needs to affect every sense, but aim for at least one detail for each sense in each scene (unless of course, it reads awkwardly or is inappropriate for the scene).
- What do the characters see?
- What do the characters touch?
- What do the characters smell?
- What do the characters hear?
- What do the characters taste?
A fun exercise is to take each one of these, close your eyes and picture the scene with that sense in mind. Write down all the details you come up with and pick the best ones to add to the scene. Don’t go for the obvious ones—dig a little deeper for the details unique to your world, story, or characters.
At the end of today’s session, we should have a richer world and setting, and characters who exist in that world, not just on it.
Tomorrow’s Step: Eliminate Unnecessary Infodumps
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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