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Monday, March 26, 2018

5 Most Common Mistakes with Setting

A few weeks ago I was updating the Writing Tip Index, and was horrified when I realized I had nothing on setting. NOTHING! So I'll be slowly remedying that over time.

But today's post is rather straightforward and simple. I'm going to talk about some of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to handling setting.

Mistake #1

Perhaps the most common mistake I see with new writers is that there is essentially no setting.

The story opens up, usually with a conversation or a character thinking, and the writer literally does not tell the setting to the audience. This usually happens when the writer could care less about where the characters and plot are taking place, and may even argue that because it could take place anywhere, it doesn't matter where it is.

Other times the writer just assumes that the audience will assume by default that it's taking place in present day, in a home or office or school.

Sometimes the problem isn't that there is no setting whatsoever, but that the setting is vague--the writer doesn't give the audience enough of a setting or a clear picture of the setting.

Sure in some rare cases, you don't need a setting (excerpts from Ender's Game is often given as an example), but almost always, you need a setting--even when the scene isn't about the setting.

There should really be some sense of setting in every scene. Stories don't take place in a void. If it's not important to the story in that scene, find a way to squeeze it in.

Mistake #2

From there, sometimes writers overcompensate and put in too much setting.

Now, I think it's important to remember that some scenes are about setting. For example, in a wilderness survival story, you'll be dealing a lot with setting, because your character is trying to survive dehydration, freezing cold, and poisonous plants. Scenes where setting is a key player will naturally have more words spent on setting. In other scenes, setting is present but not as important.

It's sometimes helpful to look at the scene you are going to write and ask yourself what aspects are most important in it. That might help you keep it balanced.

But sometimes writers start learning about the importance of setting and imagery, and they get a little too carried away. They may describe everything, thinking that it will give the audience the most specific reading experience possible. Other times they describe parts of the setting in more detail than that part actually merits. Worse still is when they give a huge long history about the setting as an info-dump. Even if it's about the history, it's still an info-dump, folks.

I don't care how amazingly you can write setting, if you spend way more words on it than it deserves, it slows the pacing way down and it's a problem.

This may feel counter-intuitive to some people, particularly if you've mastered college creative writing, where much of the emphasis may be on imagery and trying to write beautifully. You need setting to write imagery, so sometimes what happens is people start overwriting setting.

Another aspect is that if you read "classics," they can often have a lot of setting. I once had a friend say that Tolkien could take pages describing a leaf in detail. So some writers today think that to be good means to be that descriptive.

But here's the thing, and listen up because it's important, back when the "classics" were written, most people didn't travel all around the world, most people didn't have access to volumes and volumes about other locations--many times readers literally did not know what something looked or sounded like, so the writer needed to spend more time describing it. Audience members literally did not know what the West looked like, or what X species of leaf looked like, or what the southern dialect sounded like. There is actually an old genre called "local color" that was simply about capturing what a region was like to live in. Kate Chopin was known for her local color short stories. And reading about these places was all new and strange and wondrous to people.

Fast forward to today, and more than ever we know what other parts of the world is like, and if we don't we can just use the internet to look it up. I've never seen the Great Wall of China in person, but I know what it looks like. I don't need a two-page description of it. I know what a Southern accent sounds like, and I don't need you to write the dialect out exactly how it may sound. Thanks to technology and special effects, I even know what a dinosaur or a real black hole would look like.

Those things still should be described if they are in your story, but the point I'm making is that today we need to describe way less. And if you are going to try to write beautifully by describing everything about setting in detail, the average person is going to get bored and skip ahead or put down the book--they already have an idea of what things sound and look like.

Mistake #3

Third on the list is poor blocking. I already did a whole post on blocking several weeks ago, because it's really a topic in and of itself. But in case you are new here, missed it, or need a refresher, here is a summation.

Blocking is how your characters interact with objects and setting.

The main issue that crops up is continuity errors. For example, I might be reading a dialogue scene where the characters are talking while doing the dishes in the kitchen. At the end of the conversation I might read a line about how they went inside the house. Huh? Weren't they already in the house?

That one sounds a little obvious, but it can happen in subtler ways. For example, in one scene I might read the Jan goes to her bedroom on the main floor. Then later in the book, I read that she went upstairs to her bedroom. So which is it? Is her bedroom on the main floor or upstairs? When writing a whole novel that can be difficult to keep track of along with everything else.

Spatial vagueness is the other problem with blocking--not being clear where the characters are in relation to their setting, how close they are standing in relation to a tree or ditch, etc.

Now with blocking, you don't want to overcompensate and get too detailed with it. You want to describe enough. It should be clear when particularly important, but not overbearing.

Mistake #4

Using the same "set piece" in multiple scenes and describing it in detail every time.

This one is tricky to explain, because it really depends on how its handled. I did this big fat blog post to explain how to render reoccurring descriptions and details so that they don't become stagnant and boring, so you can describe a set piece multiple times, but almost always, in order to be successful at that, you need to follow those techniques I explained in the post: expand, deepen, or create motion.

On the other hand, you can use the same details every time to "tag" or "anchor" the subject in the reader's mind, so doing that isn't necessarily a wrong thing either.

What is a problem is when you don't understand those things and you re-describe the entire set in detail every time a scene takes place there. A lot of stories have scenes in bars, pubs, clubs, or "inns." Imagine having multiple scenes take place there and every time you start a scene there, you take several paragraphs to describe the place in detail, again.

It gets boring right?

If it's the first time that set piece is on the page, and it's somewhat important, you can maybe take a few paragraphs to describe it (alternatively, you can weave it into the actual scene, and which you choose may depend on pacing needs), but every time after that, you just need to hit a few details--"tags" or "anchors," something that's in motion, something new, or a specific aspect in more detail. You don't need to go through and re-describe it as if the audience has never seen it before.

If you are going to spend a couple of paragraphs describing something we've already seen, it needs to be different in some way--at least in the way the character sees and perceives it.

Mistake #5

No interactions with setting.

As I already mentioned, in some scenes setting is more important than others. But there is a problem if there is often no interaction with setting.

See, I talked about imagery a couple of weeks ago, and in order to really appeal to the senses, you need some setting. You can't feel rain if there is none. You can't smell freshly cut grass if there is none. Sure, you can get some imagery in from other characters and objects, but often imagery relates directly to setting.

In real life, we interact with setting, or it interacts with us. In my room typing this, I've watched the sky get lighter outside, seen joggers on the road, I can hear the filter of my aquarium going and the fan, and I can feel the softness of my blanket. It's mainly in the background, but it's there, and from time to time, I might look out the window at the joggers.

The setting can affect the scene. Having an important conversation late at night at a friend's house is much different than trying to have one at a grad night party.

Whether setting is more in the background or a focal point of your scene, consider how it may emphasize points and contribute to tone. Does it frustrate or help a goal?

Setting is often required to pull the reader into your story, so that they feel as if they are in it. Usually, it should be more than just a backdrop.

Do you see any other mistakes writers make with setting? Let me know in the comments :)


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1 comment:

  1. Great read, thanks. Lots of food for thought and helpful tips for newbie writers such as myself.


I love comments :)