Listen, writing a book is tough. There are a lot of elements and moving parts that you need to keep track of and it begins to feel like a balancing act the further you get into it. Sometimes it feels like trying to juggle china plates while being set on fire- without breaking a single dish. Depends on the day and it's enough to drive anybody crazy. With that being said, your setting can make or break your story. Writing is about the harmony of the elements- characters, setting, plotline, narrative- all of these need to come together in the perfect combination in order to be successful. Sometimes pulling it off comes as natural as breathing. Other times it's a dumpster fire.
Setting, in my opinion, is one of the easier tasks, but this isn't true for every writer. This month we've been learning a lot about how to correctly build your settings, but what about the mistakes to avoid? I mean, how do you really know if your setting is a hot mess or not? With these 5 mistakes you can be certain if you're committing a setting faux pas once and for all without all the guesswork.
1. Not enough detail
When you first sit down to write it's all too easy to get caught up in the other aspects of your story. Characters and plotline create a strong lure and sometimes as writers we get caught up writing about our characters and exploring all the naughty things they get into that we forget that our stories have to take place somewhere. In our heads we know where our stories occur, but often we forget to put those details down on paper, leaving our readers to view events that happen somewhere in blank space as opposed to where we envisioned it.
Example: Daniel and Mary were hiking beside a lake. They had stopped for lunch along the shore when they were interrupted by loud rustling in the leaves behind them.
At face value this doesn't seem too terrible. You can probably picture two people having a lakeside picnic. The key problem with this setting is that it is too vague. Sure, it shows you a place, but there aren't any defining details that tell us exactly where this lake is. We have no idea what region, where in the world it may be, or the size of it. We have no indication of any cultural aspects that may in turn tell us who Daniel and Mary are. And that's the problem. If this lake was part of the Great Lakes in North America, it would be a far different story from one taking place by a lake in Italy. Details matter.
2. Too much description
On the opposite end, too much description can be just as problematic. This can come about when you love your setting or when you have to spend a lot of time researching it for accuracy's sake. If you're writing a historical fiction, steampunk, or sci-fi/fantasy you probably know what I'm talking about. You get so caught up in the cool details that you start to forget that not everything is necessary for your actual plotline. Your setting may be strong, but it actually depreciates when you overshare. While some genres require more description, there is a limit. Even readers who like exploring new worlds won't stick around for unnecessary scene descriptions. Make sure that all of yours are necessary.
3. Assuming the reader sees the world like you do
Another common mistake you can make as a writer is to assume that everyone who picks up your book is going to read it the same way. Say your setting takes place in NYC, a place you've been many times and love. While you may be able to recall several facts and many details, a reader who has never been cannot. Ergo the image in their head will not be the same as the one in yours- unless you describe things properly. You cannot assume that when you say Central Park, that a reader from Utah is going to picture an open manicured lawn with tons of people, dogs being walked, and the surreal feeling of being surrounded by green within an otherwise drab concrete city. When you say park, they may instead picture Zion National Park, which is full of red clay cliffs and vibrant greenery with no one around for miles. Based on regional backgrounds, both are accurate pictures for the word "park" but obviously when compared they are vastly different. The best way to avoid this mix-up is to be as specific as possible when defining a major settings within your story. You can also contrast the two locations if it's only in passing, for example saying that the Central Park is different from Zion and what the differences are as your character is strolling through Central.
4. Forgetting sensory cues
How do you experience the world around you? Through sight, sound, smell, and touch, right? These sensory details cannot be ignored when you're writing your setting. In fact, some of the best ways you can bring your reader into a scene is by utilizing these. While it's tempting to only use visuals, remember that by incorporating all of the senses you'll be deepening your reader's experience of your world as well. This will make it more memorable and in the long run, make it a story your reader will be hard-pressed to forget. The only thing you need to look out for with this approach is to make sure you vary the way you describe sensory details. Repeating the same thing over and over won't have the desired effect.
5. Character perspective
Keep in mind that while your readers won't view your story from the same lens, neither will your characters. If you're writing in first person remember that you have to describe your setting from their point-of-view as well. Often writers mistakenly use their own interpretation of what's around their characters rather than allowing readers to see things from their eyes, cheating readers of fully grasping the world from your protagonist's point-of-view. When you've fully grasped your character's "eyes" you'll be able to give your readers a whole new way of looking at the world. Make sure you use terminology that's appropriate to them, for instance, if they're a doctor use medical terminology, if they're a homicide detective, use "cop" speak. Just make sure to do your research and keep it from becoming a play on stereotypes.
For more resources on setting, check out these books:
A Writer's Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham
Writing Active Setting Book 1: Characterization and Sensory Detail by Mary Buckham
Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan
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