Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Show-Don’t Tell’

A Novel Setting

In Setting, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 29, 2012 at 10:00 am

The setting of a novel fits the cliché that too much of a good thing is definitely too much.

It’s best to give description of time and place in moderation. Provide the snippets that ground the character in his or her reality without drawing too much attention to the words.

It would be like reading by looking at the individual dots of each letter, looking at each letter and then coming up with the word – just a tad too time consuming and boring.

The idea is to get readers wanting to find out what happens next.

You don’t need to describe a map of streets with rows of businesses, stores and houses detailed down to the last shingle, as well as every piece of clothing on your character as if you’ve just dressed her up like a Barbie doll.

Instead, try a well-phrased sentence or paragraph or two or a literary description of the character’s surroundings to add color and dimension to her world. This description of setting is necessary to establish a story’s mood, feeling, historical period and location.

To give a description, use any of the five senses – sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch – to draw out what is happening in the character’s world. What does the chocolate chip cookie she just baked smell like? How does its buttery taste crumble on the tongue, leaving you wanting seconds?

Through description, the character is giving her sense impressions of the colors, sounds, flavors, odors and feelings of the things within her environment.

As she describes these things, she reveals her relationship to her environment, which is essential to ground her in the plot of the story.

Is she a big city girl stuck in a small town? Does she like the open prairie but is living in the mountains? Or is she interested in being a novelist but stuck doing her day job?

Here are a few questions to ask about a character’s relationship with the setting:

  • Is she limited by or at odds with her environment? Or does she love where she lives, including her zip code and type of residence?
  • How does her external world relate to her internal world? Her internal world consists of her thoughts, feeling, beliefs, fears, memories and other psychological factors, while her external world is everything she senses outside her body.
  • How does her setting influence her identity and behavior?

The key thing to remember about setting is the old adage of show, don’t tell. Let your reader experience the time and place of your created world, rather than telling them as if giving dictation to the steady rhythm of a metronome.