Friday, May 31, 2013

Placing Setting Details for Best Effect-- The Danger of Frontloading Your Story with Description

One of my online students is writing a very good mystery.  He has plotted it well, and he's working on developing the characters.

Last semester in the twelve weeks of my online class, I focused him on pacing.  What is the best pacing for a mystery?  What elements keep the momentum going, the tension high?  What drops tension, and even distracts the reader?

I asked him to study different aspects of pacing, such as dialogue, character description, and setting.  How is each used for best emotional effect?

This writer has improved tremendously in the months we've worked together.  But he still can "frontload" his chapters with too many setting details.  I wanted him to see how they slowed the pace of his story, and begin to choose the specific details that wouldn't derail his readers. 

So, as a special assignment, I asked him to read a couple of his favorite published mystery writers.  How much setting do they use?  Where is it placed in the chapter?  In what ways does setting enhance a story? 

He came back to me, confused.  The amount of setting details and where they were placed varied widely from author to author.  Some used a lot of setting before an event or action.  Some used very little.  Some used a different amount at different times in the story.

There seemed to be no real guideline to follow.

He's already learned a lot, just by noticing this.  So now he's ready for the second step in the "setting study" I've given him.  It's time to answer the question that's most important:  What purpose does setting play in story?

The Purpose of Setting in Story
Each author uses setting in his or her story for one purpose:  to enhance our emotional involvement with the plot and characters.  Setting has no other reason for being in story.  It is fun to write--sure.  It's poetic and interesting. 

But the only cardinal rule about using setting is this:  Everything--everything--that is brought to a story must have relevance to the character's journey.  And that includes setting.

Setting is broad--in my classes, we call it "container," because it acts like a container to hold the story, in the best situations.  It grounds the action, gives us something to see the character interact with.  An old Southern town is a perfect foil for the rebel kid who now lives in NYC and is returning.  Imagine how different the story would be if it took place in Northern California.  Skilled choice of setting is the mark of an accomplished writer. 

Some writers believe setting just needs to harmonize with a character, be familiar.  Not so.  Unless setting acts like a mirror, or a foil, or even an antagonist, it doesn't contribute to our emotional engagement with the character who is in it.

That's why good writers choose setting details very carefully.  Some may use a lot, some less, as they slowly show us a character's motives, emotions, and purpose in the story.  Each element of setting that is used MUST show us something relevant about the character's emotional challenges.  Not just their history.  Their story. 

An example:  An author decides to describe a river early in chapter 1.  It's a good description but it must be more than that.  The reader will need to see how that river plays an important role  in the character's growth or challenges in future chapters.  Another example:  A silver mirror is beloved to the protagonist's grandmother.  She keeps it on the dresser and looks at it, remembering this dear person in her life.  But this mirror has zero meaning to the reader as just a setting detail, as just a memory, unless that memory plays a key part in the changes the character faces now. 

Even clothing (a type of setting detail) is carefully chosen in good stories.  Cowboy boots are fun to give a character, but what do they tell us about this person?  How do these boots change meaning as the person grows?  There better be some meaning, or else the reader will not "receive" this setting detail as relevant.

Finding the Relevant Details
In my early years as a writer, I liked to list a lot of setting details in my opening chapter--I wanted to "set the stage," so to speak, get the reader into the location that I'd studied and lived with for so long.  I was itchy to download everything. 

Then I noticed how my beta readers would glaze over--even skip!--my settings.  Eventually one asked me, "Why are you adding all this stuff here?"  "Because it's interesting," I said, offended.  "It may be interesting," she said, "but it tells me nothing about the story."

I realized two truths from this feedback.  (1) Setting isn't always interesting to readers.  I had to make it directly relevant to the story, and especially the character.  (2) Frontloading my first chapter with setting didn't engage readers, many times.  Again, it was useful only if it mirrored the character's challenges.

I devised an exercise that I use with my writing now.  In early drafts, I let myself dump as much setting on the page as I want.  Then I begin to sift it for relevance.

This is the exercise I gave my student.  I think it'll make a difference in his writing.  See if it makes a difference in yours!

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Using one of your chapters, make a list of all setting details.  This might include physical surroundings, objects, pieces of furniture, paintings or photos, a coffee mug, clothing, even music playing in the background. 

2.  Next to each, write its purpose in one of your character's (or real-life 
player's, if writing memoir) journey. 
3.  Anything that doesn't have a direct, clear purpose--that's not obviously used by the story to further our emotional understanding of the people involved--needs to be looked it.  Can you get rid of it? 

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