Since I’ve been working intensively the last couple of weeks with my creative writing students on improving their approach to setting, I decided to share some of those thoughts on this blog.
Last week, I talked about the basic necessity of understanding your setting. Once you’ve got an understanding of your physical space, you can then move on to the next stop
Tip #2: Describe your setting emotionally
Ultimately, this is the difference between saying: “The gray building was fifty stories high” versus “The building towered above them, gray and ominous.”
I think the most important thing is to understand WHAT should be described. So many times, I have drilled it into my students’ heads to add more description that they often end up going too far. They describe the smallest details . . . usually the ones that we all take for granted in everyday life.
For example, I’ve read long paragraphs about a character opening a door. Such a description includes everything from looking at the door, putting the hand on the doorknob, turning that doorknob, pushing the door, and then entering the room.
Now, this might be interesting if we were reading a horror story or a suspenseful thriller, but my students usually give me these scenes just to describe a character coming home from school. While they have achieved a high degree of technical accomplishment in these passages, the description doesn’t do anything in the way of moving the reader.
The general rule for myself (and one I try to communicate to my students) is this: describe it only if it impacts the plot, the character, or the mood of the scene. Then, once you’ve identified what needs description, then express it with emotion.
There are no rules for how you can bring emotion to a scene. Most writers, I think, do it instinctively. But when I struggle in my own writing, I always fall back on the basics: using figurative language, employing the five senses, and peering inside the heart and mind of the characters in the scene.
I think using the five senses is particularly important. We are so accustomed to thinking visually, but really the sounds, smells, and temperature of a room can really add a lot to any scene.
During a recent reorganization of my studio, I found this old version of my manuscript for Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger. The circle around the opening paragraph of the chapter shows me that I wasn’t happy with my description of the setting. The opposite page shows my handwritten attempt to improve it.
Below is a scene that one of my students recently reworked to improve his setting. His first draft of this chapter was void of any description at all. He had simply said that his character entered a shed.
Now check it out:
I turned the handle and the rusted hinges creaked as the door opened with clouds of dust puffing. Inside was what I expected. Tools and farming implements. Paints and brushes. Insects and mice. I shivered and a cold sweat dripped down on my face. I walked inside and my stomach did loop-de-loops. Something dragged me inwards. Not physically, but mentally, like a magnet to magnet.
There is so much mood and emotion in this scene. We, the readers, know something magical is about to happen. We’re invested!
My next tip on setting will focus on drawing on the power of characters to help emphasize a setting.