As part of my ongoing blog series on how to show, not tell, I’ve put together this little list of simple tricks for using your setting to maximize Showing. I hope you find it useful!
Using Your Setting
I always try to make the setting fit the story I have in mind.
– Tony Hillerman
Interact with Setting
When we write about settings, we often “set it and forget it.” Don’t. Set your setting early on in your scene, and then make use of it. It can be used to Show what things look like, to Show characters’ emotions, to set tone… basically anything. Think of how you turn your settings into actions, and Showing will come naturally. Here are some examples:
She had a hangover.
She slapped the top of the mini-fridge and swung open the door. Fog rolled past her as she stuck her head inside.
“You got any ginger ale?” she asked him, bumping bottles around. “It’s great for hangovers, my mother says.”
He felt frustrated.
He kicked at the wood chips under his swing, then looked up, glaring over the tops of the pine trees that lined the far side of the pond.
The cave was dark. Who knew how deep it went?
She bent and snapped up a pebble. “Let’s see how deep this thing goes,” she said, drawing her arm back to throw the stone.
Add Details to Setting
Don’t force your readers to rely on their default settings – their default classroom, default park, default kitchen. Add personality by Showing details. Teach us about the people that inhabit a place, or about its culture, or its history. For example:
The counter was sparkling clean. Mom was fastidious.
My mother’s green marble countertop sparkled beneath double layers of Pledge.
The walls were crumbling in places where bombs had hit them in the war.
They passed a portico with only one fluted column. The other had been obliterated, and though the dust pile had long since blown away in the wind, he could still see a shard of metal that had embedded itself in the side of the house.
He stopped beside a stall that had a selection of paintings offered for sale.
He stopped beside a painter’s stall, arrested by the stark visage of the Madonna staring at him from the center display. Most of the paintings were of demure saints and virgins, but the Madonna grinned at him, half-winking, as if she knew something he didn’t.
Diversify Conversational Settings
In real life, conversations tend to be boring when described to others. But “We sat at the table and talked” doesn’t fly in a book. Diversify the settings of your conversations (and the things the characters are doing while talking). This doesn’t mean all your conversations must take place on rollercoasters, but it does mean that the setting must give the characters something to do or look at. For example, consider these situations:
They talk about her abortion at the kitchen table.
They talk about her abortion at the park, where there is a duck with six baby ducklings.
He asks her out by her locker.
He asks her out as he follows her on her paper route, racing after her at six in the morning.
His boss gives him a clue to the murder case by dropping a file on his desk.
His boss admits to knowing more on the roof during his smoke break.
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