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As was mentioned yesterday, this theme week was my suggestion. And since I haven’t had the time to actually dive into craft books, I lined up a ringer in my place (thanks again, Debra!) and got myself off the hook…until last week. I know most of you are wondering where your deep POV, heart-stopping, temperature rising prose is that you’ve come to expect on Wednesdays. Well, it’s not here. Unfortunately, you’re stuck with me today.
Now, to the task at hand. One of the first craft books I ever bought was Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level by Donald Maass. You may recognize Mr. Maass as one of the most respected and in-demand agents in publishing, but he’s also a master of the craft. I highly recommend this book.
I obviously couldn’t discuss the entire book in one blog, so I found the topic where I need the most help – setting. In just five paragraphs, I learned an entirely new way to create setting, a new approach. When I write my first draft, I skim over setting details in order to get the story down, with the plan to add the details in the next pass. I’ve always thought of it as mentioning the color of the walls or the smell of the flowers. Maybe the sound of the birds. But that won’t make my setting *feel* like another character in my book and that’s what I’m after.
This is where psychology comes in. In chapter four, Maass explains that instead of sticking in a sentence of detail here or a bit of description there, reveal the setting through the character’s POV. Use the character’s perceptions and how the setting affects her to make that setting affect the reader.
For example, say your story opens with your heroine standing on the deck of a cruise ship. You could describe the colors of the sunset or the sound of the wind through the rails. But better yet, you can let your heroine describe the scene.
The waves rolled one after the other in an endless dance away from the lumbering vessel. There was no way to know where one ended and the other began, just as Laura could no longer determine where her anger ebbed and her sorrow rose. This cumbersome yet graceful, floating paradise was to be the setting for her honeymoon. Instead, it served as the elegantly decorated, gold-plated, luxury liner of her worst nightmare.
The setting is obviously a cruise ship, and in another character’s perception, it could be described as exciting, crowded, or relaxing. But seen through Laura’s eyes, it’s just large and empty. The endless waves represent how she feels, that her pain will never end. All of her emotions are rolling over and under each other and at times crashing together. Described in this way, the setting comes to life. It has a distinct and specific affect on the character, and hopefully, a distinct impact on the reader.
Further into chapter four, Maass reveals the secret ingredient to setting. The key element all breakout novels need to take the setting to the next level – details. The best settings that evoke real emotions and reactions from readers are those with unique and specific details. You could describe the moon as “shining brightly enough to make a flashlight unnecessary.” Or you could let your character describe the moon for you.
The moon reminded Laura of the power pole spotlight planted at the end of the cattle guard back home on the farm. The light that could have guided 747s down the front pasture or served as a beacon for passing ships hundreds
of miles away. Laura always hated that damn light.
It’s a good bet that most readers can relate to that bright streetlight that glared through their bedroom window at 2am, angled perfectly so as to shed light across the pillows in such a way so as to make it impossible to get away from it. This description invokes the feeling of irritation, annoyance, and the futility of knowing there’s nothing she can do to get away from the light, and yet I didn’t use any adjectives or adverbs. The reader can see how bright the moon is through the verbs and nouns. And the reader understands how Laura feels about the moon. This description gives specific details and is unique to this character, her perceptions and her current emotional state.
Now it’s your turn. How do you create your setting? How would you describe something from your stories without using adjectives or adverbs? Have you ever described a scene from one character’s POV only to reveal the same setting again through another character’s eyes and have it be totally different? For the readers, what authors have the best settings in your opinion? And what is your favorite setting for a book?