Monday, November 5, 2012

Setting Dumps: Tips on Avoiding Them

Setting dumps. Sometimes I joke and say they’re haunting me because it’s rare I come across a manuscript without one, but the truth is, THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! First pages, second pages, chapter one, chapter two, at the start of new scenes….everywhere.

I get the draw to them. They’re easy. Convenient. They get the setting details out of the way so you can focus on the action, but the problem with them is they’re a sign of lazy writing. And worse, they’re, for me as a reader, an excuse to skim.

These are pics from my latest trip to Hawaii.
This is an ancient burial ground.

So how can you avoid them?

The trick to revealing setting is to do it with such a deft hand that readers don’t realize setting is being revealed. Let’s look at an example. This is a scene from Anna Dressed in Blood (Kendare Blake) where Cas is seeing his new house for the first time:


There are three bedrooms and a full bathroom on the fourth floor, plus a small attic with a pull-down ladder. It smells like fresh paint, which is good. Things that are new are good. No chance that some sentimental dead thing has attached itself. Tybalt winds his way through the bathroom and then walks into a bedroom. He stares at the dresser; its drawers open and askew, and regards the stripped bed with distaste. Then he sits and cleans both forepaws.


There’re a few techniques I think are really effective in this paragraph:

1.       The author provides only details about the house that are important later in the story. She didn’t tell what color the walls and carpet were, how low the ceiling fan hung, how dirty the window was, etc. Readers don’t need to know every single detail. A few choice features and readers can fill in the rest. (And, really, do your readers need to know the color of the carpet? No. Not unless something like a murder happens and the same colored fiber is found on so-and-so.)

2.       Instead of telling all the details through Cas’s eyes, the author uses Tybalt, the cat, to further describe the room. This is good because we’ve now transitioned from telling to showing. A character (even a pet) interacting with the setting is movement. And movement is good. Plus, it’s a much better alternative than flat-out describing.

3.       Not only does Cas say the room smells like paint, he tells us what that means. This interiority does two things: 1.) breaks up the telling sentences, and 2.) gives us clues as to what Cas’s life is like. He’s moved into enough new houses in the past to know that fresh paint symbolizes something that will directly affect him.


Okay, I’m going to give you another example. Let’s see if you can recognize a few of the techniques. This is from Bruiser (Neal Shusterman) where Tennyson is following his sister’s boyfriend (Bruiser, a known fighter) home to confront him:


The Bruiser opens a rusted gate that bears a NO TRESPASSING sign and latches it behind him, then crosses through the weeds toward his house. I follow along in the adjacent alley and peer between two of the Dumpsters. Looking through that rusted chain-link fence is like looking into a whole other time and place. The old one-story farmhouse is more like a shack. There’s a big, rusted propane tank, and the farmhouse roof is shedding shingles. The building seems to list, as if it has shifted off its foundation. The place is painted a color that I think was once green but has since faded to various shades that have no specific name on the color spectrum. And the smell of the place…well, it smells like bull and the stuff a bull leaves behind. I pity the neighbors downwind.


Spot any?

Well, action for one. Movement. This is effective because there are still things happening as setting is mentioned. As a reader, I’m concentrating more on what Bruiser and Tennyson are doing, wondering if Bruiser will spot Tennyson and what he’ll do if he does rather than thinking to myself when will we get back to the action?

More interiority too. This one the ending line. Succinct. Drenched in voice. Brilliant.


So when you come to a point in your story where setting needs to be addressed, try breaking up the description with these techniques. And remember….

You don’t want anyone to notice the setting. You just want it to be.


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