If you’ve been in a critique group for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” No writer can opt-out of that longstanding rule. Showing draws the reader deeper into the story, and adds immediacy to the reader’s experience. But many well-meaning crit partners often label narrative or exposition as telling — especially when it comes to settings.
Narrative is an integral tool that a writer uses to make scenes come alive. Without good narrative the story isn’t grounded. So how do we make our settings come alive? We let the reader view the story’s settings through the filter of the Point of View (POV) character’s emotions, experiences and beliefs. Look at the examples below to see what I’m talking about.
Catherine looked at her lovely childhood home. She saw the horribly neglected yard and remembered a happier time. Her feelings of despair almost overwhelmed her. She knew she would find a way to get through the next few weeks, but it wouldn’t be very easy.
In this example, the reader is told about the setting. Reading it doesn’t produce much of an emotional impact. When I first began writing, I thought this example was good writing. It isn’t. Watch what happens when we delve into Catherine’s emotions and experiences.
Catherine peered out the car window at a past she never thought to face. Overgrown trees and bushes loomed at her as she got out. She explored the once happy yard, games of tag and kick-the-can echoing in her mind. The familiar bench, half hidden by an overgrown wisteria bush, beckoned with promises of rest and peace. She shook her head. Peace would be hard to find without Tom beside her. How would she get through the days to come? A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Work, my dear, it keeps the hands busy and the memories at bay.”
Do you see the difference? Looking at the setting through more than just Catherine’s vision causes it to come alive and resonate with the reader.
Here are three ways to insure you add depth to your settings:
- Utilize all five senses. Every day we filter our perceptions of the world around us through our senses—our sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. As a writer, we owe the reader the same kind of experience, especially when it comes to the setting.
- Tie the setting to a dream or a memory. A place is just a place — until we provide the reader a look at how the place ties to the POV character’s dreams or memories. When a place is connected to our heroine’s desires or her past, it becomes more significant, helping us know our character better and sometimes providimg twists and turns to the story.
- Focus on the emotions. Discover the emotions your POV character is feeling and let that color how she sees and reacts to her surroundings. A crowded elevator will bring out one thing if your character is anxious and something else entirely if she’s excited.
The next time you start to describe the setting in your story, slow down. Take a good look at what your character is seeing, feeling and even remembering. Then let the reader experience the setting through the character’s senses and emotions.
Edie Melson is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for life’s stories. She loves to share her 16+ years experience in the writing industry through mentoring and teaching others.