Saturday, January 24, 2015

One way to describe a setting

A writer friend recently asked me how to incorporate description of a setting into a piece of writing, especially in a setting that may be unfamiliar to many readers.

I suggested having the characters interact with the setting, and describing things only as they are being used.

Writers sometimes think they have to start by describing the stage set, as with a play. But the description of a setting can unfold as a scene progresses. Our main interest in a piece of writing is usually in the characters, not the objects or the wallpaper. We only want to know about the setting to the extent that it affects the plot and characters. We can learn a lot about character, plot and setting by watching what a character does in his or her environment: peeling apples, lacing ice skates, bandaging a wound, mending a shirt, counting money, peeking through a window, applying makeup. These actions tell us about time period; they show us whether the character is neat or sloppy, open or devious, gentle or harsh, nurturing or abusive. They can reveal the character's economic class and main interests.

Guiding readers through a setting this way moves them along fluidly, with the action, rather than relying on blocks of descriptive text that can sometimes feel inert.

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