Monday, October 20, 2014

Don’t Be Stingy With Setting Details

One problem I see in many submissions to the Sweetheart line is the scant amount of details used to describe setting. Often, I’ve read several pages into chapter one and haven’t seen the name of a city mentioned (even if the city is invented) or a geographic region, or worse—any clues as to the time of day or the weather conditions.

Not only do the details help the reader get a sense of where these people are, but the details allow the author to create the backdrop for the action. If the author doesn’t describe the place where the characters are interacting, then the reader will do it by whatever is available. They might look for clues in how the characters talk or if the heroine orders a diet pop (Midwest) or the hero grabs a chili dog from a street vendor (big city) or they walk a couple blocks downtown to a corner where several food trucks are parked (seen this in California).

But that’s not the readers’ job—that’s the responsibility of the author. Look at the following two paragraphs and see what a difference the inclusion of a few details makes in the creation of mental images.

Example 1: Sue Branford adjusted the strap of her messenger bag, crossed the street, and turned down the block. She had to get to the newspaper office and get her story submitted within the hour. The air was hot and she squinted at the sky.

Example 2: The seconds ticked down on the traffic light, and Sue Branford adjusted the strap of her messenger bag while balancing on the edge of the curb. As soon as she spotted the ‘walk’ sign flashing, she dodged around the cab straddling the crosswalk, slammed a hand on the trunk, and then ignored the cabbie’s long blasted honk and taunt as she dashed for the corner. The offices of The Riverdale Gazette were only two blocks away but felt like ten in this 90 degree heat, and her deadline was less than an hour away. Meeting that would be tight.

Obviously, the second paragraph is longer and provides more details, specific ones, which allow the reader to start building the scene in his or her head. Look at the items included and what can be derived from them:

Traffic light (modern type)
Balancing on curb, dodging around cab (shows impatience in character)
Cab (not a small town)
Big enough city that cabbies honk & yell taunts (sorry to decent cab drivers)
Name of newspaper (hints at fictional town)
High heat (probably summer time)
Tight deadline (either her story is long, or maybe controversial and will need fact-checking)

As an editor, I’m looking for stories that get me right into the action but also give me a feel for where the story occurs. I don’t want to be on the fifth or sixth page, following along as the heroine and hero have a cute meet with witty banter only to learn the story takes place on Boston Commons in June and they should have had all sorts of pedestrians, bicyclists, skaters, etc. around them and birds chittering in and out of the nearby gardens and ponds, but none of that is included. Such a lost opportunity, and more than likely, a rejection.

NOTE: the examples are not from a submitted query or manuscript, but of my own creation. And the details on Boston Commons were collected from a Google search in less than 15 seconds.

I love to see comments of your preference for setting details.

Leanne Morgena
Senior Editor, Sweetheart Rose line


Gail MacMillan said...

I couldn't agree more. I enjoy getting a sense of place when I read and giving it when I write. Thank you for vindicating my convictions.

Gail MacMillan, proud to be a Wild Rose author.292

Maddy said...

I'm guilty of that one, similarly with describing characters' appearance. However, at a workshop I learned a neat reminder:
if the writer doesn't specifically tell the reader what a character looks like then the reader is free to imagine a middle-aged man, in a purple tutu, sitting in a Frootloop tree on the planet Zarg.

Ruins the romance...

Tena Stetler said...

Excellent point! I love to get lost in a book rich details of where the story takes place and what the characters see, feel, hear, taste and smell. I also enjoy knowing what the characters look like.

Tena Stetler, excited to be a new Wild Rose author.