More Than Just Ground
I don't like setting. I don't really like reading about it or writing it. Terry Goodkind had those long paragraphs in Wizard's First Rule that described the trees and the hills and how the light fell just so and... yeah, I skipped all those. In a lot of my first drafts you're not even sure where a scene takes place because I avoided mentioning it. My characters could be floating in space – or in a lake – but you have no idea because I haven't described it well enough. Or at all. As a writer, I realized this is probably something I should get over and learn to do, and since I'm trying to write about writing, I figured I'd detail some of the slow, painful learning I've been doing.
Setting is more than just the ground your characters walk on while they're solving the mystery of the painted chicken. Setting can be a critical reason for character development. Miles Vorkosigan would not have faced the same trials or overcome them the same way if his story had not taken place where it had. It can be an active component of the plot. If your novel takes place on a small island during a hurricane, you bet your characters are going to have to deal with all the problems that come with too little space and too much water.
Even if all you want to do is tell a human story while transporting your readers to a beautiful land similar to – but not exactly like – our world, you can't get away with dumping lengthy paragraphs of description where nothing happens into a reader's lap. Those places where the hero pauses in his hike up the mountain to survey the surrounding landscape with it's carefully researched vegetation and painstakingly lyrical prose about the sunlight and the birds- those are the things I skip. I don't care how beautiful the language is, I'm bored. And I'm a writer too, so I know how much work went into that paragraph and how much you love the imagery. But what does it matter if the reader never sees those words because they've flipped ahead to where the hero actually starts doing something besides sightseeing?
I tend toward the other side of the scale. I dislike reading description so much that I avoid writing it altogether. I'll tell you that my characters are sitting in a room or traveling through a forest and that's as much as you're going to get because I'd rather concentrate on why she's glaring daggers at him or the ninja that's about to jump out at them and ruin everyone's day. Readers have enough imagination that they can come up with the setting by themselves, right? Wrong. It's your story. They want to hear and see and smell what you want them to hear and see and smell. So my approach doesn't work either.
Well, then what's a struggling writer to do? I sat in on one of Donald Maass's workshops two weeks ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and he said to throw out traditional description. What? Really? Yup. No one reads it anyway. Well, some people do. But most admit to skipping it.
A story is told from a specific character's point of view (well, usually, there is also omniscient POV, but that's not what I'm talking about). Sometimes there are forays into another character's POV, but every story needs a protagonist. Since the story is already being told from the protagonist's POV with their voice, then the setting should be as well. Show the reader where they are through a character's eyes. Let their upbringing and emotions color the description.
In another workshop, the presenter gave us an exercise: Describe a building from the POV of a girl who just lost her boyfriend in a car accident, without mentioning the girl, the boyfriend, or the accident. This was my attempt:
Black stains crept up the cracked brick walls, and windows stared back like accusing eyes that knew all the secrets of the world. Water streamed from the sky and down the glass, making it seem like the building itself was crying.
The next exercise was to take that same building, same weather conditions, and describe it from the POV of a boy in love, without mentioning the boy or his emotional state.
Water poured down the brick facade, running through the cracks and over the black stains as if washing away the building's dark past, cleansing its iniquities and raising it to new life.
Now, I could have written it:
The rain pinged off the dirty windows and ran down through the cracks in the brick, over the black stains.
Can you see the difference? The first two are colored with the emotions of the characters, what they've experienced, how they're feeling in that moment. Instead of getting a boring line about the building – which could be really important, but how would we know because we skipped it – we get a closer look at the character and what's important to them.
If you're writing about a disabled character, this could be especially useful. Instead of giving the reader a lecture about how your girl in a wheelchair is supposed to feel, show them by including details only someone who has to navigate in a wheelchair would notice. The sidewalk is tilted so she feels she has to lean way over to keep her chair from falling over. There isn't enough room for her to get from one side of the room to the other. People's toes are in the way (toes and bookbags, I'm always running into toes and bookbags).
In this last exercise, we were supposed to take a character from our current work in progress and stick them on a horse ranch a half-hour away from the nearest store. Merry is from a fantastical world similar to Victorian England, so I had to wrap my mind around it first, but here's what I came up with.
Manure. Did they really expect me to roll through manure? They knew I steered with my hands, right? “Do you have any wipes?” I asked.
“Well then we have to get wipes. I'm not going any further without wipes.”
“Nearest store's half an hour away.” He eyed me. “Just use your jeans. Nothing wrong with them.”
You may not get a great picture of time of day or what exactly it looks like from this little bit, but you certainly know how she feels about the place. You know she's probably in a wheelchair and which specific detail she's worried about. And as a bonus you can see some of what the secondary character is feeling from the dialogue.
It's not easy. I have lots of places to go back and rewrite or add description from a character's POV, but in the end, your story will be much richer and your reader will have a better idea of who your characters are and what they care about.