Sunday, May 2, 2010

Make Your Settings Count

The writing world is cyclic, just like everything else. Right now, the cautionary phrase on the tip of every critique partner’s tongue is show don’t tell. They’re right, of course. Showing draws the reader deeper into the story, and adds an immediacy to the reading experience. But many well-meaning crit partners often label narrative or exposition as telling.

Narrative is an integral tool that a writer uses to make the scenes come alive. Without good narrative the story isn’t grounded. So how do we make our settings come alive? We let the reader view the story’s settings through the filter of the POV character’s emotions, experiences and beliefs. Look at the examples below to see what I’m talking about.

Example 1
Catherine looked at her lovely childhood home. She saw the horribly neglected yard and remembered a happier time. Her feelings of despair almost overwhelmed her. She knew she would find a way to get through the next few weeks, but it wouldn’t be very easy.

In this example the setting is described in a cold and distant way. When I first began writing, I thought this example was good writing. It is good—but it could be great. Watch what happens when we delve into Catherine’s emotions and experiences

Example 2
Catherine peered out the car window at a past she never thought to face. Overgrown trees and bushes loomed down at her as she got out. She explored the once happy yard, games of tag and kick-the-can echoing in her mind. The familiar bench, half hidden by an overgrown wisteria bush, beckoned with promises of rest and peace. She shook her head. Peace would be hard to find without Tom beside her. How would she get through the days to come? A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Work, my dear, it keeps the hands busy and the memories at bay.”

Do you see the difference? When we look at the setting through more than just Catherine’s vision it comes alive and resonates with the reader.

There are some things we can do to insure this kind of depth to our settings.
  • Utilize the five senses. This will add depth to the scene.
  • Tie the setting to a dream or a memory.
  • Focus on the emotions your POV character is feeling and let that color how she sees her surroundings.
So next time you start to describe the setting in your story, slow down, take a good look at what your character is seeing and feeling. Then let the reader experience the setting through the character’s senses and emotions.


  1. Good to hear from you, Edie! Good advice.

  2. Very good examples! I'm striving to get better. My first draft of my first MG manuscript was more like the first example. I went back and added a lot more words and detail.

  3. Excellent examples of good writing!

  4. Wonderful example of how to show emotions through the setting. Thank you, Edie. :-)

  5. Great advice. I enjoyed the examples, the second one really came to life. What you said about tying emotions or memories to the setting made all the difference in the second example.

  6. Hey, Alena, welcome to Book Doctor!

  7. Thanks for all your great comments. It helps me know the things that help you most. Be sure to let us know if you have any questions you'd like to have addressed. I've gotten such a warm welcome, I feel right at home!