I’ve had several questions about descriptive passages when writing fiction, specifically about how you make your settings “come alive.”
My advice is always to forget about writing long descriptions in your novel; focus primarily on your characters and plot. Readers read for the story, so your characters need to be the focus, always.
Let’s say you’ve recently visited a wonderful location — Hever Castle in Kent, England. Anne Boleyn spent some years of her childhood there. You had a wonderful time, and because you’re writing a mystery novel, you want to include a description of the castle and gardens. You could, of course, but why not consider putting the action front and center, rather than descriptions?
If you were writing a mystery for example, your sleuth could find a corpse, or a clue, in the yew maze at Hever Castle.
Less is always more when it comes to setting. Movies are set in the most exotic locations on the planet. Movies and TV rely on visuals, but you don’t need to. Let readers use their imagination. With a few telling details, and your characters’ thoughts and actions, your novel can be more entertaining than a movie.
Be especially wary of using too much of your research — it’s tempting, but again, it stops your story’s action.
Be wary of including too much of your research when writing fiction
YOU need to know your setting; the reader does too, but only as it impacts plot and/ or character
Let’s imagine that you’re writing a novel set in 16th century Venice.
You’ll need to research many things: history, people, government, Venice itself. How did people live? How many people lived in Venice at that time? How did they buy food, buy clothes, how were they employed?
You’ll need to know many things about the setting of your novel, BUT the reader doesn’t need to know them.
I haven’t read The Gondola Maker: A Novel of 16th-Century Venice by Laura Morelli; I’ve just browsed a few pages in Amazon’s Look Inside feature. The novel begins: “I chew my lower lip while I wait to see my father’s gondola to catch fire.”
Morelli devotes many words to setting the scene; the setting is seen through the eyes of the viewpoint character. We see what he sees, and we hear what he thinks. Morelli uses setting to build her character, and to advance the plot.
If you remember this, that you only need to devote words to setting in your scenes as it directly impacts on your viewpoint character and plot, you’ll avoid one of the most common mistakes which new authors make.
Action, action and more action: keep your plot moving
To reiterate, when it comes to setting, focus on your characters and plot. Currently I’m rereading Sharpe’s Tiger, the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s historical series about Richard Sharpe. In this book, Sharpe is serving with the British army in India, in 1799. I’d forgotten how well Cornwell integrates his research with the action.
Here are Sharpe’s thoughts, when he’s thinking about deserting the army, and is wary of the vultures floating on the wind currents high above:
Do not get caught. Rule number one in the army, and the only rule that mattered. Because if you got caught the bastards would flog you to death or else reorganize your ribs with musket balls, and either way the vultures got fat.
The book’s action is non-stop — at no time does the author stop the action to describe the setting. For example, in heavily-fortified Seringapatam Sharpe will be relying on a spy for help, but the Tippoo knows about the spy:
The man dealt in common metals, in copper, tin and brass, and his wagons frequently passed through one of the city’s two main gates loaded with their heavy cargoes. God alone knows how many such cargoes had passed out of Seringapatam in the last three months…
When you’re writing, write, then integrate your settings later
Your first draft is your “plot” draft, where your main concern is the story. Just write your settings as they come to you. You can integrate your settings with the action in a future draft.
The story comes first — that’s the essential tip for creating settings when you’re writing fiction. 🙂
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