In yesterday’s post, we talked about how one of the biggest writing mistakes is often found in the setting, often most noticeably evident with a lot of info-dumping at the beginning of the novel, describing what the setting is like, how the world works, setting a tone through colorful prose.
These are great and necessary things when done properly. But too much will likely bog down your readers. And that is the last thing you want, especially at the beginning when you ought to be hooking your readers.
The first key is to build your world through action. The second key is to use sharp, pointed descriptions and details to establish your setting.
Small Details That Hold the World
I heard someone say once that the smallest places can contain the world. He was talking about how the smallest setting can say something universal.
I would say that the smallest details can say everything about the world you are creating. Pointed details can build more world than pages of description. Make your descriptions matter.
Every story has a setting and it needs to be detailed. But just because you have details does not mean they are adding anything to the story.
We probably don’t need to know the exact layout of your protagonist’s kitchen, along with all the contents on the counter, or what he is having for breakfast. We don’t need to know how many windows are in the bedroom, unless of course there is an intruder coming through one and the protagonist is escaping out the other. We don’t need to know the names of every street your MC is walking down. You get the idea.
When first trying to discover a setting, writers have a tendency to splurge on random, un-important details. I remember in my first novel I had a character who woke up and then I described everything in her room, and then went into a bunch of boring details about her getting ready for the day. It was just plain awful!
Details do not necessarily build a world. They have got to mean something.
For instance, let us say we are writing a dystopia. A gallows in the downtown sector of a major city tells a lot more about what sort of dystopic setting we (the readers) are entering into, as opposed to a page-long ramble about the government structure and penile system as the MC walks past the police station. A gallows in a modern setting is jarring, and says, Whoa! This is another world.
Leave a body hanging from the gallows, and it says even more.
Let the body belong to a child, and… you get the idea.
The gallows is not all we need to know. And maybe at some point we will need to know more about how the system works. Since every system must have rules, of course. But even then, let action drive it. Show us a character being subjected to the system.
Be intentional about the details you provide. That way when you make a point to describe something, the reader knows it is important. Otherwise, the gallows is just another random item in a long list of forgettable details. Make the details matter.
And not just because they are interesting or horrific, but because they affect your protagonist, or tell us something about your protagonist.
In Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, the protagonist is anorexic. She perceives everything she eats in terms of calories. And so detailing what she eats is very important to her character.
Perhaps your MC is eating TV dinners because he is in the middle of a divorce. The details tells us something important about the character.
The littlest, pointed details can say a whole lot about your character or your world. But if it’s not adding anything, beyond a list, then cut it. Just cut it.
Tomorrow we will talk about building a world with inherent conflict.