Most writers I work with tend to blend outlines and instinctive writing together. There are exceptions. Some are renegade mavericks who wander into the jungle with a machete and hack away a path. Others spend months plotting all the paths, sub-paths, and hidden passageways before they type a word.
Regardless of the method, when the sky parts and heavenly light blasts down on the freshly minted manuscript, most writers are going to need to address descriptive setting elements. The method I employ is starting at the chapter and working my way in toward the sentence.
I’ve talked about setting before in the past. We’ve hammered the following topics:
- Anchoring the reader in setting.
- Subtext in setting.
- Sensory details in setting.
- Stitching transitions into setting.
Let’s take a day and merge the concepts together into a step-by-step checklist.
Step 1: Think big by addressing setting on the chapter level. This is where the article I wrote on anchoring the reader might come in handy. Make sure when the chapter opened you took a sentence or two to address when and where the character(s) are. If you aren’t writing in 1st person, you might need to clue the reader into who is present.
There are methods you can employ which could preclude you from having to clue readers into who is present. M.L.S. Weech, Robert Jordan, and many other authors utilize chapter icons. These icons offer a visual cue to the reader as to who will be present in the chapter. The glasses icon I added is one of Weech’s, and you can check out more of his Caught icons here. While this method is a great tool, you’ll notice most authors who do this also anchor the reader in each chapter with their words. It’s a double whammy!
Step 2: Isolate the character(s) in the chapter and determine from which POV the setting is being viewed from. From what I’ve gathered, writers who pump out large, daily word counts struggle with this the most. This is because they can sit down and write more than one chapter in a session. Their mind latches onto a single way of thinking (POV), and despite the change in character, the setting description will bleed over. This is perhaps the easiest way to bamboozle a reader.
I can think of many times where I was reading a passage and assumed the description and setting information was coming from Character X. It wasn’t until I got to a character name that I realized it was coming from Character Y. It’s important to switch descriptive gears when we switch characters. Mindful consistency is going to be key. It is important to consider how the characters’ arcs will impact their view of their world at any given time. Even the most optimistic character is going to look at a flower and want to stomp on it every now and then.
Step 3: Think scene by scene. Within the chapter there can be multiple scenes. These are typically indicated by a shift in place, action, or perspective. The writer usually accomplishes this by pulling in or out with description. Each one of these shifts is an opportunity to provide a couple sentences, or even a few words, to indicate setting and how the character perceives it.
Consider the article listed above about stitching transitions into setting. This is especially useful when analyzing how your character moves scene to scene. Your creations may walk, run, drive, jetpack, or teleport to different locations within the chapter. Look to see if there will be value added by injecting setting details into those transitions.
Step 4: Go inside scenes and address paragraphs and sentences. This is where the real work starts to happen. This is also where self-study and understanding of your genre will come into play. It’s the dreaded show versus tell, devil in the details tedium.
As the writer, you likely have all the answers. Try your best to think like the reader and look for areas where they will have questions. These are some of the most common questions I ask writers: Where are they? How did they get here? What does this look like? How does he/she feel about this?
Be mindful of these “constants.”
Constant 1: Think about where you are in the book. Setting information has a cumulative effect. If you’ve done a solid job building up, setting can be less about “stuff” and more about how people view “stuff.” In essence, setting can become more emotional and less physical.
Constant 2: Show versus tell is something that I tend to address at the scene level. Again, I don’t advocate the use of one or the other universally. The article I linked offers a tool to gauge intensity within a scene and this can help determine the amount of showing or telling you need to do. It’s not foolproof, but it’s something to consider.
Constant 3: For areas of the book that are conflict driven, consider if the setting is running against the characters. More often than not, you want the setting to act as a barrier to character goals. Sure, you can toss down a yellow brick road to help them find their way, but make sure it is loaded with poisonous flowers and wicked witches.
Constant 4: Look for those “ly” adverbs and decide whether they should live or die. I’m not in the business of adverb annihilation, but if the adverb is being used as a crutch where a few words of insightful information could have been added, it’s time to reappraise.
Constant 5: Make sure to inject sensory details throughout. You can refer to the article I linked at the beginning for more info on this subject if you require it.
That’s it for today! I wanted to take a day to compile our examination of setting into a larger tool. I hope you found some of this information useful. For my own study, I’m curious about what elements of setting, if any, you struggle with. In revision, is there a certain method you employ to address this? Do you have a checklist of sorts? I’d love to talk about it and advance my own knowledge. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!