Editing Challenge Day 20: Enrich the Setting

The Blairzone - 33This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Today’s editing challenge sounds big, but is actually quite small, and still on our theme this week of looking at the story on a micro level. In a first draft, I often find that I’m in a hurry to get going to the main points of the plot; I know this and that clash has to happen in this room and at that train station, so I gallop ahead to the clash. But part of the great pleasure of reading is in being able to picture the world that characters enter and be moved or unsettled by it. I love stories that have a strong sense of place. But dumping in a giant paragraph of passive description isn’t the right way to go about it.

Instead, we want to give our reader just enough for him to be able to paint a picture in his own mind, with his own quirks and preferences. We want to enrich the setting by incorporating it more strongly into the story, right alongside the action.

Take a story with an ugly confrontation at a cocktail party. How big is the space? Is everyone crushed up against each other in somebody’s studio apartment, or is it a lofty and grand ballroom? Is there a table with food and drinks or is everyone pawing through the fridge? Is the enemy across the room or face to face? Are the lights dim or glaring? Giving us little details of setting are crucial to our immersion in the scene — and the setting can actually make important differences in what goes down in the plot.

The same goes for a story about wide-open spaces. If you’re writing a cowboy story, are we in the desert or the mountains? Are we in a gully or on top of a ridge? What wildlife is here? Is there water near? Is the setting somewhere dangerous, the kind of place you shouldn’t linger if the weather gets bad? How far back are the people pursuing, and do they have it tough or easy? In many stories, setting is the story. But we still want the focus to be action and character.

Today, try slipping in just a sentence or two of setting among the action of your paragraphs. Give us the way the light is coming through the window or what the stores are selling along that deserted street. Show us the train tracks. Show us the bustling mall. Let us picture where we are while the story unfolds.

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