Just when you thought you had figured out your setting and got all of your characters comfy so you can focus on your story, one of your darn characters pulled a fast one on you and got up and left. The story was rolling along smoothly until you came to a grinding halt with another location, another big description of set and surroundings, mood and color and perhaps even down to the furniture.
Sigh. Is it really worth all this trouble? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep those dang characters all stuck in one room like a play so we didn’t have to describe the whole dang world?
First of all, yes and no. Yes, it really is worth all the trouble. And no. It wouldn’t really be nice to keep them all in one place. Your story— with very few exceptions— would be dry, tasteless and boring, like a watered down soup.
How to Write a Delicious Soup- Er…Novel
Your settings and descriptions of your character’s surroundings are what give your book the spice and flavor for the soup. Don’t skimp. But on the other hand, too much salt and spice spoils the soup as well. The trick is in finding that perfect balance between just enough description to flavor the story and not so much that it overpowers it.
Mix and match your spices carefully. Using descriptive language to define your new setting doesn’t have to take your story to a grinding halt and bring in another long geography lesson on where your hero went. A few carefully placed words could be all you need to describe the stale stench of second-hand smoke at the corner bar. Already we have a feeling of what what kind of place your hero just walked into. We can smell it.
Now how about mixing in a few other of your character’s senses as well? Instead of focusing on describing the set change, let us experience it through the eyes of your character. Is it dimly lit? Is there a glare that makes her shield her eyes and squint to adjust to the view? What about the clientele? How do they make her feel? Is she comfortable being ogled by that drunkard slobbering in his whiskey? Is she irritated? Frightened? Doesn’t give him the time of day? Can she hear over the roar of the juke box or or would she hear the click of the pistol being pointed at the back of her head?
The flavor of your setting has to do with the senses and what you as the writer can make us see and feel in our mind. It isn’t a history or geography lesson down a long path that the narrator shares with the reader. It’s a moving, panoramic part of the story, shifting and flavoring every bit and part of the story. It can’t be separated out into chunks and sections, it’s alive. And in the best stories, it weaves itself into every word by becoming a movie flowing in your mind that you can see with your imagination.
The Grocery List Syndrome
Any good recipe starts with a carefully planned list of ingredients. That doesn’t mean your scene has to read like one. So often we get emails from our readers that say, “I don’t have enough description! It’s bland! I need MORE!”
Sometimes too much description is as bad as not enough. Some people have a flair for description and they go on for pages and pages about the antique china cabinet in the corner. Unless there’s a reason for you to draw attention to those details, why put all that effort into it? Remember how we said your setting is like a character in last week’s post? And remember how we said that every character you introduce has a purpose?
The same goes for your setting.
The whole purpose of description is to inform the reader of what’s important. Take a look at this example:
The place was small and dark. Nothing fancy. The carpet was worn in places, the bar top scratched, but clean, and it looked like they had a pretty decent variety of booze in stock. A few college kids played pool in the back and a few more, dressed in Goth gear, occupied the smattering of tables on the floor.
“Nice place.” It wasn’t. It was a shit hole. With wannabe vampires eying her like candy from the corner. Just her style. The kind of place she could relax and finally unwind.
Not a huge description, but just enough for the reader to get the idea the place is a little hole in the wall tucked away somewhere and how the character viewed it.
There’s a reason why people “write what they know”. Readers are sharp. If one fact is out of place they’re going to notice. You never know who will be reading your book and if you try to fake your way through a setting or even your character’s skills, your reader will know.
This is where our modern day technology is such a blessing. You can learn how to do practically anything on the internet. Want to know how people live in the Yukon? Want to learn how to fly a plane or bake a cake from scratch? Find it on the internet.
Of course, the very best way to research anything is by visiting places first hand or taking various lessons for yourself. Although we all know this isn’t always possible. There’s a reason why many writers are well traveled and have dabbled in a multitude of subjects. Not only does it enrich their lives, it enriches their writing.
Every time you go on a vacation you’re soaking up the local culture. Every time you take a night course at the local community college or learn a new hobby you’re gaining fodder for the next character that comes around the corner. Never underestimate the power of learning…and make it a point to never stop learning.
Science Fiction and High Fantasy Settings…an easy out?
No. A thousand times no.
No matter how fantastic the setting, whether it’s a fictional medieval town tucked away high on a mountainside, or a whole new galaxy on the other side of the universe, a majority of it is going to be based on reality as we know it. Unless you’ve actually gone to a parallel dimension or have traveled to a civilization on another planet, there will always be elements of familiarity in your setting.
Why? It’s what we as humans know.
Why else? A touch of the familiar helps with suspension of disbelief. If there’s just enough familiarity with an object, person or place, the more your readers will believe it actually exists.
Do shifters and vampires really exist in our world? No. When people read about supernaturals roaming our neighborhoods do they believe it’s a possibility? Yes, because the surroundings are all things the reader is familiar with to start. It makes it plausible in the reader’s mind.
What’s In Your Soup?
Take a look at your story. Where is it set? Did you use a historical or contemporary backdrop for your characters or did you create a world of your own? Leave us a comment about it. Did you have any sticking points or did you have a blast creating your setting?
Note: Bonds of Blood & Spirit: Loyalties is now on sale in digital format. Visit our shop right here on the site to buy it for ePub, Kindle or on PDF, or buy it on Amazon. But wherever you buy it be sure to leave a review!