Bring Setting into the Action

forest-696838_640As I edit Raising Fear, I struggle with my settings. I loath books that deviate from the story and detail every item in a room or describe someone’s clothing to the last button.

So I go too far in the other direction, often leaving my characters acting on a blank white stage.

The obvious solution is to include only those details that are important to the story. This could be something like the scar on an arm that later identifies the murder victim.

But how to make this work for setting? And are there ways to use setting details to ramp up conflict and tension?

As I was puzzling over this question, I came across this excellent blog post over at Writers Helping Writers. I’ve used their Emotion Thesaurus before (a very helpful resource that I highly recommend), and am excited that they are soon to release the Setting Thesaurus. This is a tool I need!

But back to the blog post. The author offers tips for making the setting play a role other than just as background scenery. Instead, the idea is to use the setting to deepen characters, add meaning to the story, and intensify the conflict.

My favorite of their tips is this one, to use the little things.

If every challenge and obstacle was some catastrophic event, we’d be tangoing with melodrama in no time. Luckily, little obstacles can be just as effective and remind readers of the real world. After all, who hasn’t spilled coffee on their slacks right before an interview, taken the wrong bus on route to an important doctor’s appointment, or discovered a broken tent pole only after completing a four hour hike into the mountains?  The little things are like midges biting at the skin, and how gracefully (or not) your protagonist bears the pain as things pile up will humanize him to readers and teach him resilience, something he’ll need if he’s in it for the long haul.

If you find your scene is flagging, try planting an obstacle or two in your character’s path.  Besides, whatever it is your protagonist wants most is something they need to fight for. Winning becomes so much more of a rush for readers when the protagonist has really worked for it.

Just this tip alone has opened up all kinds of possibilities. Who hasn’t dumped coffee in their lap when they’re facing a crisis? And we all know, how we react in those situations shows volumes about who we are as people. One scene like that, and there’s no need to tell readers that the character is patient or high-strung. They’ll know.

Stop by Writers Helping Writers for the full post.


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