7 ways to rock your setting like a boss

I assume you write stuff you want human creatures to read. Yeah? Well, human creatures are sensory. And nearly always location-based. Setting provides essential context that informs your plot, shapes your characters, and enriches readers’ experience of your story.

pin it down2

…on the map if possible. No, seriously. Look it up, pick an address if that’s relevant. Narrow in. What are the coordinates, the exact date and time, what was the temperature and average humidity that day, when did the sun set? If it’s a real place, get to know it as deeply as you can. If it’s imaginary, you should know it even better. (The social systems, the infrastructure, the local flora and fauna, how the laws of physics work there, etc.) You might not end up including any of this in your story, but you should know it.

capture the vibe3The gestalt of a place may seem ineffable, but you can convey it with a few well-chosen details. For interiors, consider the shape of the space, the light sources, the air quality, the acoustics, the textures, the objects in that space. How high are the ceilings, is there an echo, can you smell mold, how thick is the carpet, is the feng shui harmonious or like totally malevolent? For exteriors, think about the geographical features, the shape of the land, plants and trees, weather, temperature, angle of the sun, proximity to water, local ley lines…whatever you need to create the right mood.

ambient humans2People (other than your characters) are a critical part of your setting. You don’t have go all Margaret Mead on that shit but you do need to consider the cultural aspects. Think of how Junot Díaz conveyed so much about his New Jersey locale with a little street slang in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Is this place densely populated? How often do your main characters run into people they know? How would a tourist characterize the locals? How do people treat strangers? How flagrantly do they jaywalk? What languages are spoken on the street? How many people are yelling at a given moment?

examine motives2Choose a setting because it contributes something unique to your story, not because you live there or want to go there or think it would sell books or make a pretty movie.

Having said that: If you’re sufficiently passionate about a particular setting, it’s worth exploring it to see what stories will arise.

use a light touch2A story is about characters in conflict and shouldn’t try to minutely describe every sensory detail. Yes, there is bad showing (see this post on when showing goes wrong).

Most readers don’t enjoy long passages of description. It’s boring and leads to visualization fatigue. Trickle in the pertinent details as they come up naturally. If it doesn’t directly enrich the story, leave it out.

keep perspective2Remember your POV and view the setting through your character’s eyes, not your own. Fish don’t notice they’re in water, and people experience a place differently depending on their maturity level, mood, worldliness, whether they’ve been there before, innate powers of observation…. All the qualities that make them unique make their perspective unique, too.

Where do your primary characters stand in relation to their setting? Are they wholly products of it or are they in opposition to it? In what ways might they transcend it?

shine light on themes2Use descriptions and metaphors that hint at, develop, and illuminate your themes, and choose settings that amplify them as well.




Huge thanks to Michelle Su for the gorgeous photographs!

Showing and Telling

One of the first pieces of advice any new writer gets is “Show, don’t tell.” This is akin to telling a new driver “Brake, not gas.” Of course you need to do both, though it’s true that only the most gifted of beginners gets the balance right.

Showing refers to evocative writing that immerses readers in a vivid, continuous dream. Think sensory description, figurative language, and those convincing details that come from close observation. Not every detail—just the ones that matter. Telling is most useful when you need to show the passage of time, summarize boring events, or give critical background information.

Like we say of gender: It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a spectrum. And neither technique is intrinsically good or bad. Showing and telling (and really, all writing) are bad when they are vague, general, abstract, clichéd, predictable, and boring. Good telling and good showing (and good writing) are vivid, specific, concrete, original, unexpected, and high-interest.

Easy, right?

John Gardner says you can tell anything except emotions. Jeff Gerke bans all telling from the first fifty pages. Emma Darwin advises us to show the big scenes and tell the transitions. Nathan Bransford recommends presenting the evidence and letting the reader draw conclusions. To these, I’ll add: Be less of an essayist, more of a cinematographer.

Breaking it down…

WORST TELLING: Cheats the reader out of something that should be experienced.

Example 1: Summarizing important scenes. (“That was the year he worked his butt off and overcame personal obstacles to become the most respected Solitaire player on the planet.”)

Fix: Slow down; come down to earth. Root yourself in the moment. Set the scene. Add specific details. Put your characters in motion. Add dialogue and interaction. Describe their body language. What do they see, hear, smell, feel, taste?

Example 2: Getting lost in abstract ideas or in a character’s mind. Passages seem to occur in a void. (“Basketball was Bill’s greatest joy in life. He thought about it constantly. Go Warriors!”)

Fix: Same as in Example 1. What is the character actually doing, experiencing, seeing, hearing? Intersperse abstract thoughts and internal monologue with concrete scene-setting.

Example 3: Judging or interpreting for the reader. (“She was beautiful.” “He felt very angry.” “The news had a big impact on Bob.”)

Fix: Describe body language or sensations rather than naming emotions. Replace adjectives and adverbs with vivid verbs and original metaphors. Give readers the evidence, not the conclusions. (“Bob hung up the phone. A sour mass formed in his throat and descended to his gut.”)

Example 4: Over-analyzing; explaining what it all means. (“My negative attitude was the only thing holding me back.”)

Fix: You should directly state your themes and analyze your own ideas, but you shouldn’t include any of that in your story, unless you are very meta-meta and need to jazz around like that. Otherwise, leave this business to readers. Trust that they can do it (and want to).

BEST TELLING: Improves pacing by moving the story along; is used sparingly and consciously; retains the reader’s interest; delivers information economically without being intrusive. Develops characterization. Contributes to the voice/tone/mood. Is interspersed with vivid showing.

Examples: A brief insertion of backstory (“He’d flunked out of Yale three years ago”). A quick summary of boring or noncritical events. Transitions between scenes; the passage of time (“I spent the next week avoiding her calls”).

WORST SHOWING: Misdirects your readers; bores them, wastes their time, frustrates them. Bogs down your story with pointless detail.

Examples: Scenes where every movement, gesture, and utterance are lingered over. Long passages of description that don’t contribute to the story. (When I was a high school teacher, I regularly surveyed ninth graders to find out what they most hated about their most hated books. Number one response? “Lots of description.”)

Fix: Pare down your descriptions to critical, evocative details—ideally, details that perform more than one duty. They set the scene and move the story along and characterize and foreshadow future plot points and establish the voice/tone/mood.

BEST SHOWING: Paints a picture in a few strokes. Evokes a multisensory, emotion-rich dream; immerses us in the story through vivid description of characters in conflict. Makes us care about the characters, ideas, and outcomes. Allows readers to draw conclusions, make inferences, connect the dots.

Example: Whatever you were reading when you couldn’t put the book down.

Here’s a photo of some flowers!

Picture 240

Sentences in service

Sometimes we try too hard to make a clever idea work. We have an effect in mind—a surprise or a joke or just a punchy, dramatic line—but the buildup is implausible. It doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Or even light scrutiny.


He woke to the sound of someone moving quietly around the room. Oh yes, the girl from last night. He rolled over in the sheets to watch as she got dressed.

“Wait,” he said as she headed for the door. “You never did tell me…”

She paused, her eyes lighting up. She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and gave him a sweet smile. “My name? It’s Arabella. I thought you’d never ask.”

“No,” he said, “what time is it?”

Here’s another:

Lakewood is so charming, so well situated on popular routes, you’d think we’d have an inn, some charming spot for weary travelers to rest, nestled among the cottages of those who’ve made this lovely place their home.

But you’d be wrong.

The moment night fell, the monsters would eat you. That’s why we don’t have an inn.

Um…are we to believe that said monsters only attack buildings where people pay by the night, but not those where they rent long-term or own the land? Come on, people.

Avoid writing sentences that are obviously in service to a clever idea. Make sure your clever ideas spring organically from the more critical aspects of the writing—the actual story, themes, and characters—and never sacrifice meaning or plausibility for the sake of a joke.

Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings!

Narrative point of view

I lead a monthly writers’ group in San Rafael. Last night the topic was point of view and our discussion was so interesting I decided to try encapsulating it in a blog. Why not?

So here we go. I’m already afraid this is going to be long but oh well.

First person.

Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with the dog because it happened to me and I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me.

…Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

We like how immersive this point of view can be, how it reveals in every sentence the narrator’s perspective and the lens through which they filter reality. We like how the inherent unreliability of a single perspective adds complexity to the story. As writers, we like the opportunity to develop a unique character voice. As readers, we love getting inside a character’s head, inhabiting their experiences and history and emotions. (Someone somewhere has done a lot of research on how what we read impacts us physically through hormones and such, I bet. But I can’t come up with any hard links at the moment. Some day.)

Some interesting variations on first-person narratives include the frame narrator (The Great Gatsby), the unnamed frame narrator (Heart of Darkness), first person omniscient (The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief), first person plural (The Virgin Suicides), the highly unreliable narrator (The Egyptologist, Pale Fire), the author as narrator (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), first person with multiple viewpoints (A Map of the World), and first person epistolary (Les Liaisons Dangereuses).

Second person.

You wake up on a Saturday morning. Instead of watching cartoons or playing outside, you decide to make a potion. A zombie potion! With a zombie potion, people will do whatever you say. And you know just the people to use it on. Your grandparents!

…Anson Montgomery, Your Grandparents Are Zombies! (Choose Your Own Adventure)

Straight to the weird stuff, folks. It’s immersive, yet distancing! At the same time! And weird!

Notable examples: Bright Lights, Big City and A Man Asleep.

Third person.

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

…Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Back to familiar ground. We like this POV for the buffer it provides between us and the most abrasive, unredeemable narrators. (To this day I’m not sure how Bret Easton Ellis managed to make American Psycho so engaging.) Omniscient narrators can be a lot of fun, but as a writer, how do you preserve some mystery when your narrator can look into time and space and the innermost thoughts of your characters?

Break it down, baby: third person limited–AKA subjective (The Hobbit), third person limited with multiple viewpoints (A Game of Thrones), third person omniscient (War and Peace), and third person objective (“Hills Like White Elephants”–if anyone knows of a novel written in this POV, I’d love to hear about it).

For no reason, here’s a photo of some flowers.

belladonna lilies, AKA naked ladies

belladonna lilies, AKA naked ladies, so I can say there are naked ladies on my blog