Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ramp up your Setting

Agents and editors are looking for good writing, yes. But it’s also important to make sure that your setting isn’t boring or cliché. Even if your primary setting is a place we all know well, it needs to stand out with the details. 

For example, Sara Megibow of Kristin Nelson Agency sometimes tweets query critiques under the hashtag #5pagesin5tweets. Last week she tweeted this: 

“contemporary YA. Instant chemistry with the romance, nice! Sadly, though, setting and story is generic. PASS.

What could have made Sara consider this query, rather than pass on it? I don't have the answer, but it sounds like it wasn't an issue of the writing or the characters. If the author's setting and storyline were less generic, it might have had a chance with Sara. So how do you make your setting less generic and more unique?

High school is a tried and true location for YA, but it’s also been done. And done. (and done.) Think about taking your setting and turning it on its head. Where else can you set the story? If the story has to be set in high school (or any other cliché location), how can you make it different? Maybe give the reader a after school theater program, a martial arts dojo, a YMCA athletic club. Someplace where you can add detail that makes the story stand out from the crowd.

I often talk to my kids writing classes about using the senses to create a time and space. So even if your location is the moon, if you use the right details, your readers will connect to the location. 

Google is a wonderful tool for finding out about places you’ve never been—use your resources to add a sense of detail to your setting.

Just be sure not to tell the reader what they are experiencing…show them in the detail. Here’s a great example from Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes:

Wen and Stella stared vacantly at the wall, the frizzy-haired boy tapped his pencil on his desk, and the skinny girl absently fingered a pile of rubber bands.

The location and their emotions should be immediately evident. What do you think?

It’s one sentence, but the details are strong. Third and fourth graders always KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that the characters are in school and they are bored. And yes, Hughes’s setting is high school—but he adds unique details to make it original. (If you haven’t read it, it’s great!)

Try this :

      Write a short paragraph describing the first place that comes to mind.
      Use as many of your senses as you can to show the reader a sense of the place and time.
      Use surprising details to avoid being generic—be specific and detailed.

What tips do you have for making your setting stand out?

1 comment:

  1. excellent post. Now I want you read Lemonade Mouth.

    Setting can make it break a story. Thanks for the tips:-)