Monday, February 13, 2017

How To Make Your Setting Come Alive In Edits

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

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For some writers, the setting, or the story world, is the reason they write. This is a common refrain among fantasy writers that I talk to, that they started writing fantasy because they love the worldbuilding.

Sometimes during our first draft, the setting feels vibrant and alive in our imaginations. That was true for me as I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street, my young adult historical mystery, But when I re-read my first draft, I was surprised to find very few descriptive details. The setting had been very real in my imagination, but I hadn't done a good job of getting the details on the page.

If you can relate, here are some ideas for how to enhance your setting during your edits.

Slow yourself down.

Often the reason my setting details are sparse is that I'm so eager to get the story down that I skim over all those details. In a first draft when the only reader is you, that's fine. But when you move into your second draft, and you're preparing your book to be read by others, you need to make sure that what you're seeing in your head is showing up in the text.

For me, I must take physical steps to slow myself down. I'll close my eyes, imagine myself wherever my characters are, draw up sensory details (more on that next), and after a few minutes I'll begin revising the scene to include what I experienced.

Engage your senses.
When I've slowed myself down, and I'm imagining myself in the scene, I do this by thinking through the senses. What in this scene can my character see, touch, hear, smell, and taste?

Because of my tendency to rush through this step, I've disciplined myself to write down several ideas for each sense my character experiences in the scene. Not all of the ideas make it into my revisions, but I've still found it to be beneficial to have a big pool of ideas to draw from.

Push yourself to go beyond the obvious.

If you're like me, it's easy to get into a description rut. I have my characters walk into rooms and notice the same things that they noticed in that other roomsthe wall color, the quality of furniture, and so on. Or I'm always using the same colors for everything.

But you know what's amazing about being a novelist versus someone who makes visual stories? We're not limited by any kind of budget we have or what we can find at the store.

You want your character to have a green pinstripe couch? No problem. Want half your book to take place in Bermuda and the other half in Prince Edward Island? Sure. In first drafts, I often default to my habits. My characters are always meeting at ordinary restaurants, walking through ordinary parks, or attending ordinary schools.

If you write realistic fiction like I do, you of course need to be real with your settings, but don't limit yourself to obvious choices. Same goes for what you pick to describe in a room. Try to go beyond the details like the wall color or furniture arrangement and give us details that show creativity and thought went into crafting this place.

Checkout this brief description of a store from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater:

Fathom & Sons is a narrow, dark corridor of a shop, stuffed like a Cornish hen, with odds and ends labeled with little price tags that glow like white teeth in the dim light. It always smells a little like butter browning in a panso, like heaven. 

This is a place we only visit a few times during the story, but still she takes great care in few words to craft an image of the setting. Go forth and do likewise.

Pick items that convey emotion.

This is a technique I like to play around with in edits. Examine your scene and determine what the mood of it is. What is the POV character feeling at this time? What are they going to feel at the end of the scene? What kind of change is going to take place?

Then when you're crafting the description of your setting, you can think about if there are elements you can draw out that will highlight the mood. For example, if your character is in a fragile place, or something is about to break open in the plot, you might share details like the cracked lamp on the end table or the glass figurines on the mantle.

You can get a bit too on the nose with this one, so sometimes it can be better to draw out opposites. Like your aggressive, fierce character journeying through a meadow full of flowers, or a happy occasion being shrouded in fog.

There's no right or wrong way to do this, it's just something to have fun with.

Tell me about your setting! Pick a few unique details about it to share in the comments.


  1. This is a really helpful post, Stephanie! Setting is something I really struggle with, so these were very helpful tips. My WIP is a fantasy with Greek inspiration, so I'm trying to include things like pillars and open spaces and the like. Also, it has a blue moon, which is fun to play with. I find that teasing out those details is a struggle for me sometimes, though.

    1. Greek inspired sounds amazing! I love that idea, Rachelle.

  2. This is such a great post! My favorite setting definitely has to be my steampunk pirates' airship, but the Garden of Eden is fun to write about as well.

    Do you have any tips for combating the opposite problem - description overload? How can I vividly describe my settings without overwhelming the reader with long paragraphs of description?

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

    1. Oh, that's a great question, Ellie! I'll tackle that in its own blog post, okay? Or Jill might since she tends to be an over-describer and I tend to be an under-describer.

  3. The setting I'm most involved with at the moment is for a time-travel novel I'm (heavily) revising. We begin, mostly, in the modern day, with ordinary modern things, like cameras. I try to stress their ordinariness, because soon the protagonist travels back in time, where instead of cameras, you have children drawing things on the floor with charcoal; instead of cellphones, you carry knives; instead of texting, you spin with a spindle ("spinal", with a removable whorl) and distaff (distaef, wullmod, lorh). She gets used to this sort of thing, until she's brought back to the "present" time, and sees things like phones, cereal, cars, electric lights, and laptops with a foreign eye. The "past" setting is eleventh-century England, and for most of the story it's the "normal". The unique thing about the setting is that it's what we're used to, what we think of as commonplace and ordinary, is strange. Trying to convey that without being too obvious about it can be a challenge, but it's a fun one.

    1. That does sound like a fun challenge, Sophia! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I got to stop 25 of the scavenger hunt! But I couldn't find a place to submit my sentence. It said "enter it here", but there was no link to do so. Thanks, the hunt was fun!

  5. Ooooo! Setting.

    Layce is a mountainous island with four wings like the snow-white moth that has learned to survive the island's two vicious winters. Blys, a winter slick with kol-addled flood waters. And Ryme, with its incessant snowfall and frigid squalls. Across the northeastern wing spreads a frozen pool that never thaws. Dark and glittering with magic, something shimmers far beneath the surface and, to Winter's chagrin, a fissure begins to spread. From high atop the mountains, Winter calls to her wolves. She knows what it is that lies at the pool's heart. A fight is in the offing.