Bestselling author Susan Squires is guest blogging today on settings.
In addition to being a New York Times bestseller, Susan is known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.
And now over to Susan (and the Belgians)….
SET THE STAGE – PART I
Learning to write good settings for your stories can serve two purposes. Setting the scene of the novel helps draw the reader into the book immediately, giving them time and motivation to connect to the characters. Setting makes them feel as if they’ve “gone to another place.” Readers love to be carried away. And if you can connect the setting to the characters, you deepen the reader’s understanding of them, also increasing reader satisfaction. So–setting the scene well is a good thing, no matter what kind of books you write.
First, I admit that description is scary. How much do you describe? How do you know you have described your setting in a manner that will engage the reader? In the end, there are no single right answers to these questions. But I can share a few tricks of the trade I’ve learned along the way.
The concept of using “telling detail” has helped me immensely. First decide what the milieu of the scene will be. Is this midnight in a circle of standing stones? A sumptuous Italian palace in the early nineteenth century? The cubicle farm of a giant technology company? I’ve used all of those. Put yourself there in your imagination. Look around. Listen. Take a whiff. Feel the effect the setting has on your body. Take a moment to really understand what it would be like to stand there.
Okay, got it? Now comes the hard part. If you really described all that, the reader would be snoozing. So pick the important details. What’s important? Well, it’s what tells your reader most about the setting itself, the characters, and about what you want them to get from the story. Do you want the jungle in the Caribbean to be dangerous? Then make it night. The air is so heavy with heat and humidity that your characters can hardly breathe. A reptile of some kind always represents danger for me, or describe noises your protagonist can’t identify. What if you’re describing a small town main street in a contemporary setting? Well, what role will the town play? Is the town poor and your character is aching to get out? Is your town a symbol of the simpler times the characters never want to leave? Those decisions will tell you what details to include.
It goes without saying that you try to involve as many senses as you can. That draws your reader into the milieu whether they want to come or not! You don’t have to mechanically tick off inserting every sense into every description. Pick the senses that will most evoke your story and use them.
Now let’s talk about how settings are related to your characters. The description is either from a character’s point of view, or if you don’t specify, by default it’s from the author’s point of view. The author talking, (omniscient POV) makes the reader feel like she’s watching the scene, not living it. While this was common in novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it’s no longer enough to keep readers reading. Hook your description to a particular character’s POV.
How do you do that? Well, you’ve experienced your setting in your own imagination. Now think about how your character would think about those details, based on who he is, his background and his most recent experiences. How does that change the description? Is the person in your Caribbean jungle a fearful young girl who knows nothing about nature? Is he an ex-military man trained in survival? These two characters would experience the setting differently, and HOW they experience it will tell us something about them. This can be an exciting way to introduce hints at a character’s background and personal characteristics, too.
New writers often make the mistake of piling on the descriptors, thinking it makes their settings more evocative. Nouns are not carefully chosen, every noun has an adjective (or two or three) and multiple clauses say basically the same thing in different ways. This just makes the prose heavy going for the reader. It’s much more effective to choose the right noun and add adjectives sparingly, so they stand out in the reader’s mind. Don’t worry about this in the first draft–just write. But when you go back and revise, cut out the excess. You’ll never believe what a difference it makes in your prose.
Not every setting needs the same detail either. A setting that’s important to your character, or one where much of the action occurs, should have a fair bit of description devoted to it. But if the setting is used only in a single scene and it’s not important to any of the characters, an evocative word or phrase will do.
Do you have to do the description of setting all at once in a big paragraph? Absolutely not. It’s better, in fact, to layer it in. But be sure to start with a little bit of description to ground the reader. I’ve read many contest entries that do a wonderful job with setting, but only get to it three-quarters of the way through the scene. Meanwhile the reader has been wondering, where are these people? Annoying, even if the annoyance is subconscious. You never want to produce a subconsciously annoyed reader.
In conclusion, descriptions don’t have to slow your story down. They can be satisfying in themselves. Choose only a few telling details. Describe the setting through a character’s eyes. And take the time to find the right nouns and a few right adjectives.
Check back Wednesday for Part II with some exercises and examples on better settings. To find more out about Susan, visit www.susansquires.com.