When you write, you’ve got main characters, secondary characters, minor characters and villains. Many people contend that the setting can become a character in its own right, and in certain situations, a well-written setting can take on a life of its own. But there are mistakes to avoid with settings so they aren’t handled poorly.
Here are five pitfalls in scene-setting to be aware of.
1. Not Writing Enough
Have you ever read a scene so dialogue-heavy that you felt ungrounded? You were missing the basic foundation tools provided by “setting the scene.” Without just a few well-placed details to tell you where the characters are, you will uncomfortably float in the scene.
2. Being Lost in Exposition
Conversely, too much scene-setting can break down the flow of the writing. It’s a real slam of the brakes as your eyes scan the page if suddenly you’re mired down in a lengthy description of where the characters are. More isn’t always better.
3. Making Lists
One of the ways people try to condense their description is to just hit the highlights of the scenery. That often results in a laundry list of details describing the setting of the story. That’s a sure fire way to slow down readers. No one wants to read sentence after sentence of room or landscape detail, particularly if it really isn’t value-added information.
4. Writing Purple Prose
Sometimes the description is added simply as filler because the writer wasn’t sure what to do next or he or she wanted to slow the pace a bit. Often this is where the writer flexes the old poetry muscle, and purple prose is born. Scene descriptions are created in language so beautiful that The Bard himself would be envious. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. In this case, they aren’t really darling. Just because the language is exquisite doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.
I was at a conference recently when an agent discussed scene-specifics. She said that stories set in Anytown USA are more marketable than stories written about miners in Western PA because a coal mine in Western PA poses a limited market. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story somewhere real—plenty of wonderful stories take place in actual places—but try not to limit your market so severely that you make your story’s audience a small, segmented market.
So, we don’t write too little, we don’t write too much. We avoid writing lists and we cut the poetic phrases that were inserted as filler. Finally, we make certain we don’t pigeon-hole ourselves into a region that is too specific to be marketable. What’s left?
The perfect sprinkling of well-placed, well-chosen details. You don’t need to describe the whole forest; throughout the scene mention the darkness of the shadows, the thick carpet of fallen needles and the pungent scent of pine. Those details throughout one scene aren’t too many, but you know you’re in a forest without saying, “They’re in a dense forest. There are trees as far as the eye can see. Needles and cones line the path, and the scent of pine permeates the air.” Further, if you mention the details in lieu of dialogue tags, you’ve killed two birds with one stone. But I’ll leave that discussion for another post…