Lots of amazing speakers came together at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference this year to throw down advice of the frank and emotional varieties.
One of the most powerful topics—which caught me by surprise, as important learning moments do—was from Robert Dugoni on settings. It wasn’t very long ago that I was writing specifically about settings as the starting point for my own writing, a method that seemed if not underrepresented at SiWC then at least less common than starting with character or plot.
Being the type to use setting as a starting point, one might expect that I already try quite hard to bring the setting to life through the viewpoint character’s gleaming eyes. And yet somehow, as I look back over the work I’ve done, I feel that I’ve really failed to do it in the most effective way.
Attacking a scene with a sentence charged with a few good words before moving on is a failure to let the setting contribute back to the scene and to the characters. Not every setting needs to be the center of attention, but when you start a story, when you put characters in a place on purpose, the setting deserves more justice than an off-handed description. From the perspective of setting as character, that setting needs to carry its weight in this scene. If a story begins and the setting is dead on arrival, then it’s just as useless as a dialogue character chiming in with unnecessary lines.
We’re not all out to write To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, but setting is magnificent when it performs for the reader, a component that shouldn’t be glossed over (or made “interesting” only because of unusual contents, then promptly neglected).
Make descriptions do more than one thing
This is the second, more meaningful layer of the “show don’t tell” rule. You don’t want to go purple trying to explain every detail with a new adjective. Instead, follow the set pieces, enumerating the ones that say something about mood, theme, or foreshadowing.
In its raw form, description tells us the obvious and nothing more. It’s no way to knock the ball out of the park in a first page because it’s just a list of facts organized in an intuitive way. This is the contact point between your concept and a reader that knows literally nothing about the plot, its tone, or its contents.
But what more can we make the people and things in the setting do? What are they experiencing which might foreshadow something about the story itself? Describe exactly as many things that is required to make the point—no more than that. The scene suffers from being bloated as much as it does from being too lean, so strive to get just the right the selection of descriptions narrowed down and then form language around those details to draw the reader in.
Don’t just take the reader to the setting—take them to the story.
One of the phrases falling from the mouths of agents when attacking a stack of first pages is that a passage’s opening description is too objective.
I’m using a new “A.I. Test” on my own work: if even an A.I. would have more giveaways in its description about its bias than the way I wrote it, then my description is merely objective.
If the description is doing literally nothing to suggest who’s head we’re in, then it’s wrong for the first page, and probably wrong for a lot more of the book than just that.
Internalize that. No matter your novel’s viewpoint—first-person, third, or I’ll even argue third omniscient—the description is colored by something that communicates something about the current point-of-view character (even if it’s the narrator).
Description can fall into objectivity when things get going, but it should almost certainly not appear anywhere in your first line, paragraph, page, or chapter. It wreaks of sterile nothingness.
Everything is subjective in terms of the character’s view. It cannot be otherwise. If your point of view is in that character’s head, you should make sure that we’re very conditioned to think as the character would before you start going back to objectivity. Early on, when subjectivity matters the most, you must choose how to deliver that subjectivity to tell us more than just the obvious.
Don’t just take the reader to the setting—let the character take us there.