Friday, April 15, 2011

5 Fatal Setting Mistakes

Of all the story elements, there is one that is often overlooked, ignored, downplayed, forgotten about, mistreated, degraded and discredited.

It also happens to be the hidden rocket-fuel to launch your book to bestseller status.

The Hidden Powerhouse of Setting

Think about it: setting frames, shapes and backdrops the action in your story. Without setting you have a time-less, place-less series of actions. Imagine a movie without scenery, a blank canvas upon which characters interact. Setting is the vehicle that moves, highlights, and focuses action, that brings meaning, that adds realism, and that draws the reader into the fictional world of your novel.

The 5 Fatal Mistakes

  1. Choosing settings at random. Some authors take the "Quick and Easy" approach to setting. They simply use the first setting that comes to mind, or use the city they live in as a default setting for every novel. This approach is actually the "Quick and Easy" way to rejection and floundering in the wasteland of the unpublished author. This fatal flaw is often revealed when the setting either distracts from the story, or doesn't add anything to it. When choosing a setting, be as selective as choosing a life partner. Ask many questions of your potential setting, challenge it, see how it feels in the story, test it out and be extra picky. When choosing the setting for your story, or for an individual scene, consider how the setting relates to character, plot, conflict, theme, symbolism and the overall story goal or question.
  2. Only Using Setting in One Way. The second common fatal flaw is a temptation even for the most practiced writer. To be sure, this flaw is a step up from the first, but not very far. In this flaw, the author carefully selects a setting that somehow adds to the story - but only in a single, limited way. Instead of pumping the setting for all its worth, the author parks the setting after it has been used only once. To avoid this fatal flaw, try to find at least three ways to use the setting in your story. Consider how your setting can reveal something about the characters that live in it. Ask yourself how your setting can challenge the characters. Perhaps your setting can trap the characters and force them to stay in the narrative fight of your story. The possibilities are endless. Repeat this process with each setting in your story, as well as the overall setting.
  3. Not establishing setting early enough in the story or scene. If you wait too long to describe setting, you risk reader confusion, and confusion is an easy transition to closing your book and never coming back. Readers want to be mystified and intrigued, not confused. There is a difference. A significant one. Confusion is often the result of a writer poorly guiding readers through the story with few, if any, details. The balance of which details to reveal and which to withhold separates novices from pros. Read bestselling novels and pay attention to how they handle this important topic of writing. You'll soon discover a pattern that works for you. A good rule of thumb is to give your reader at least three details about setting in the first few paragraphs of a story or scene. The earlier usually the better. Once a reader is grounded in the "place" and "time" of a story, they are free to release their imagination to your loving care.
  4. Dumping Setting on Readers all at once. This fourth fatal flaw is really the opposite extreme of fatal flaw number three. In an effort to reveal setting, some authors spend pages cataloging every nuance and pinpoint of light in a their setting. This "setting dump" is an easy way to alienate, frustrate and bore readers. Boredom is confusion's uglier cousin, and both lead to the reader walking away - sometimes for good. Instead of dumping all the setting details in at once, take a more patient (and longer) approach of dribbling details in here and there, just enough to fend off confusion, but not enough to make readers think your story suddenly turned into a thesis on architecture. Setting should be subtlety felt, but not overtly noticed.
  5. Not Evoking Emotion with Settings. Settings in bestsellers heighten emotion and deepen feelings, both for the characters in the story and the readers, too. This fatal flaw leaves readers disappointed, even if they don't know why. Committing this fatal flaw is akin to fighting with swords when an arsenal of guns hang unused on the wall. Why not use the firepower you have available to you? Setting underscores emotion when both the conflict in the scene and the setting both elicit the same type of feelings (i.e., two soldiers argue during a firefight or an abandoned child is lost in the woods at night).

Knowing these fatal flaws, and avoiding them in your fiction, puts you on the path to bestsellerdom.

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