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July 22, 2014

Writing Active Settings, Part 1 — Guest: Mary Buckham

Place setting on a table with text: Using Point of View to Bring Settings to Life

I’m in San Antonio this week, presenting at the Romance Writers of America National Conference. But never fear, you’ll be in great hands while I’m gone. *smile*

I’m thrilled to announce that USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham will be taking over my blog this week! Woo hoo!

Although Mary and I “knew” each other from Twitter before, we didn’t get a chance to connect until I met her in person at the Desert Dreams Conference this past spring. Mary was the featured speaker at Desert Dreams, giving a half-day presentation on writing “active” settings.

(In other words, this week, we’ll all get the benefit of conference-quality information, even though I can’t fit you into my suitcase. *grin*)

Before I turn my blog over to Mary, I want to tell you a bit more about why I was so excited to attend her presentation in April. Way back when I was a newbie writer, setting descriptions were my nemesis…

My Struggles with Writing Descriptions

In my first attempt at an original story, I included—I kid you not—several pages of dry “let me tell you everything the character sees” description. Yikes!

Some of the classics and literary novels can get away with languorous, poetic descriptions that call attention to the language itself or that provide static information just for its own sake. Most of us, especially those of us who write genre fiction, can’t make that approach work.

Our readers come for the story, not the language, so they want the story to keep moving. While our readers do appreciate lovely writing and language, we can’t “pause” the storytelling for a paragraph or more of static description. Their imagination wants movies, not a still life painting.

The trick to sharing setting information (which our readers do need) without dragging down the pace is to write active descriptions. Active descriptions let the reader imagine the setting in their mind, keep them anchored in the story, and slip in information so seamlessly that they never realize they’re reading descriptions.

Enter the fabulous Mary Buckham. She’s an expert on writing active descriptions. Her presentation at Desert Dreams was fantastic, and when I asked her here for a guest post on this tricky aspect of writing, she stepped up with an even better offer: two guest posts!

Today we have Part One, and come back Thursday for Part Two. Take it away, Mary!

*****

Why Writing Effective Setting Description Is Harder than You Think

Want to know one of the biggest hurdles to writing Setting that matters to a story? Forgetting to write the Setting from the POV (Point of View) of your character.

Too many times I see newer writers, and even more experienced ones, describing a room or street or a town based on how they see it, not how their character sees it.

Think about it a moment. Do you see a messed up bathroom the same way as your significant other? Or a teenage boy? Or someone who’s never had a bathroom all to themselves before?

Settings Need a Point of View

Instead of simply placing a character into a Setting ask yourself what matters to this character here, if anything?

Someone running through a room with someone chasing them is not going to notice the type of furniture or what knick knacks are on a mantle place. They’re going to be looking for a place to hide or an object to stop the person chasing them.

A woman who’s entertaining her possible mother-in-law for the first time in her one-room apartment is going to be noticing a whole lot of different things than her future in-law, especially if they come from a different background, social strata or even area of the country.

Using a Point of View Helps Connect Readers to the Character

Create a deeper connection between the reader and your character by revealing some of these all too telling insights. Keeping in mind of course that a little can go a long way.

Think in terms of what’s important for the reader to know about the Setting for the sake of your story and then what your POV character would notice. Put yourself deep into your character’s POV instead of skimming the surface and revealing nothing, unless nothing matters to them.

Setting can really enhance your story or work against what you want your reader to experience. Use your Setting to show more about your character for a richer, deeper experience.

How a Deeper Point of View Enhances Our Descriptions

Let’s look at an example approaching the Setting from a rough draft version to the final version.

First draft:
The wardens led me to a room and left me there.

Pretty bland description. The reader is not deep into this character’s POV because the character does not experience the room. There is no Setting so the reader is kept at arm’s length.

Note: Showing the room through deeper POV allows the reader to experience the room on a more immediate level. The reader is in the room with the character.

Second Draft:
I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in.

Better because now we’re given a little more insight into what the POV character is feeling based on the response to the room. But we still have no idea why the character feels this way. Nor can we see the room. Plus it’s straight telling, no showing.

 Final Draft:
Once inside, I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in, with thick deep carpets and a velvet couch and chairs. I know velvet because my mother has a dress with a collar made of the stuff. When I sit on the couch, I can’t help running my fingers over the fabric repeatedly. It helps to calm me as I try to prepare for the next hour. The time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones. — Suzanne Collins — The Hunger Games

Here we have more Setting details that allow the author to show some characterization of the POV character, reveal emotions based on her interaction with this room, and all by adding just a few more details of Setting. Not too many details because that’s not the intention of the scene, but enough to start showing you as a reader that this character is out of her comfort zone and grasping at anything that can make her world normal again.

*****

Thank you, Mary! My guest post by Janice Hardy shared how a deep point of view can fix most of our writing woes, and this tip reiterates the importance of that technique. Don’t forget to check out the second part of her post on Thursday too!

As I learned in Mary’s workshop, when we use deep POV to write active descriptions, our story’s settings can perform double or triple (or more) duty. We can make those formerly dry descriptions work harder and smarter.

Per my notes from Mary’s workshop, setting can:

  • show characterization (what do they notice or care about?)
  • show sensory detail (what does the character see, hear, smell, touch, etc.?)
  • show emotion (what’s the mood or tone for the character (or the reader)?)
  • show conflict (how does the character respond to the place?)
  • show backstory (how does the character feel about their surroundings?)

Notice how those aspects of descriptions center on the character. We need to use their POV to include details that matter. And those details will help the setting come to life in our readers’ imaginations.

To be intentional with the descriptions we write, we need to think about:

  • What setting elements do we want to reveal?
  • What does the POV character think about the setting—and why?
  • What emotions do we want to bring out?

Book cover of Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to GuideIf you want more tips like these, check out Mary’s Writing Active Setting series. The books go into even more detail than she can cover in her workshop.

She analyzes published examples of descriptions that work, as well as gives before and after examples that illuminate how much active settings can make our stories come alive. The complete set includes a chapter on each of those five ways I listed above for how we can put our settings to work and adds several more methods for how to force our descriptions to pull double and triple duty.

*****

Mary BuckhamUSA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham writes the Amazon best selling WRITING ACTIVE SETTING series (in e-format and now in book form) as well as Urban Fantasy w/attitude.

Love romance, danger & kick-ass heroines? Find it in her Invisible Recruits series: www.MaryBuckham.com or www.InvisibleRecruits.com.

Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to Guide with Bonus Section on Hooks Box Set by Mary Buckham in e-book or print versions at your nearest online bookstore!

*****

Mary graciously agreed to hang out in the comments while I’m away, so feel free to ask any questions you have for her. She’ll stop by during the the week and do her best to answer. *smile*
Book cover for Writing Active Setting Book 1
Mary wants to hear from you about what you think might be the second biggest stumbling block in effectively using Setting in a story. Any thoughts?

As a special treat from Mary, one lucky commenter will win a free e-copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING Book 1: Characterization and Sensory Detail! Yay! This is Book One from her complete series.

Have you ever struggled with writing active, non-dry, non-static descriptions? What aspect of writing descriptions is most difficult for you? If you’ve improved your descriptions over the years, what tip was most helpful? Are you able to make your setting descriptions work double and triple duty? Do you have other tips to share on writing effective setting descriptions?

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107 Comments on "Writing Active Settings, Part 1 — Guest: Mary Buckham"

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Angela Quarles

Hi Mary!! I took a sexual tension class from you last year and I also bought the whole setting omnibus–loved it! Definitely changed my writing!! I have a question–no–two questions: Will you ever be offering setting as a class like you did with sexual tension? I find I learn even faster when I work on exercises with the instructor. And also–I had a funny instance lately after I’d implemented what I’d learned from your book–I wanted to show some subtext about my character’s personality and also some hint at backstory and used setting to convey this (I thought). I put it from her POV, etc. Then a CP read it and asked what the point of this was and recommended your book so I could maybe bring out some subtext or other meaning! So was I too subtle?

Mary Buckham

Hi Angela! Delighted to see you hear and thank you for your kind words. As for offering another online class on Active Settings – it’s not in the near future simply because of time constraints. Those classes can be pretty intensive (as you well know) 🙂 so with my publishing schedule this year and into next as well as live events – where I do teach Active Settings – there’s not a lot of time left to teach online. As for your second question – yes, you probably were a little too subtle (which is why we have CPs and beta readers to help us tweak until the cold reader understands what we’re trying to get across). Don’t take the feedback as a road block but as a learning opportunity to let you fine tune your use of a craft technique. The more you use any element of craft the better you can get at it so gold stars for trying and for learning from the response! All the best with your writing and thank you for swinging by today!

Carradee

That’s one of the fun things about writing a book or series with multiple PoVs: You can stick different narrators in the same room, or with the same characters, and they’ll interpret things differently. Of course, that also means that it’s a bad sign when a writer has all the different characters view/interpret things the selfsame way.

I have one series-in-progress has a different narrator in each book. The first three books, the narrators can all sew—the first and second ones better than the third, who’s better at cooking. The first and second ones have grown up with people trying to torture/kill them. The second and third ones are used to working hard, scrubbing floors and pots and such—the jobs nobody else wants to do…but the second one heals easily and appreciates that nobody’s trying to kill her. The third one, though, doesn’t heal as well and has family that should (but doesn’t) notice she’s being mistreated.

Among those details and more, they don’t notice all the same things—and even when they do, they interpret/filter them differently. It’s so much fun!

Mary Buckham

Absolutely Carradee! Spot on observation (pun intended) of how focusing on writing active setting compels an author to work on deep POV. That can make a world of difference in the power of a story. Thank you for sharing and for taking the time to stop by and post!!

Elle Lee Love
Elle Lee Love

Hi Mary! I’m a newbie writer, and writing description, especially setting, is the most difficult aspect of writing for me. I am naturally unobservant about my surrounding, and I usually skip setting when I read. Oh, I also use too many adverbs. So I will definitely need your book when I edit my first novel.

Mary Buckham

Elle Lee ~ congratulations on writing your first novel. Like Dickens says – it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. 🙂 He was talking about the French Revolution but writing a novel can feel like that at times . Good news is you recognize what you need to learn more about and are putting a plan in place to help you ramp up your craft knowledge. That’s brilliant! I swear our first novel attempts are simply training grounds to learn what we don’t know. The mistake too many writers make is to 1) give up because writing a full length novel is harder than it looks or 2) assume that because they finished the book that it’s ready to sell. Great job on finding a way to approach this particular craft speed bump. Good news? The individual e-books are $2.99 each and are written so you can start applying the concepts immediately. I wanted these books affordable and into the hands of working writers to start applying the concepts right away. Hope they help you! Thanks for taking the time to read and post. All the best with your writing!

J.Paulette Forshey

Hi Mary!
These books have opened up and expanded my writing abilities! Love these concise and on the point workbooks!

Mary Buckham

Thank you Paulette! Love to hear that. Mission achieved 🙂 Appreciate your swinging past and sharing!

Lisa Guertin
Lisa Guertin

Hi Mary,
Ninja Lisa here. 😉 Thanks for sharing your tips on writing deeper POV. I agree that it makes all the difference in whether I stay interested enough to finish a book or put it down as a DNF.

Mary Buckham

Lisa ~ love hearing this from a reader’s POV. You’re spot on with your insights and I appreciate your sharing!

Marie Dry

I have blogged about Mary’s book on Active Settings and wrote reviews for it and nagged all my writers friends to buy it because your collection of how to writing books is just not complete without it. It’s literally with me all the time during the editing process. I took classes with Mary and I still believe without those classes I would never have published anything. So please Mary more more more craft books.

Mary Buckham

LOL Mary! Working on the next one as I type here. I’ll be tackling HOOKS ~ another issue we’re told about as writers but rarely taught about 🙂 Thank you for all your support and sharing and never forget ~ you did the heavy lifting of taking the time to learn and apply to make your dream a reality! Thank you in spades!

Jim Jackson

Hi Mary, I took a class or two with you years ago when you taught classes for the SinC Guppies.

When I started writing my descriptions were a lot like the first draft example: just the facts. ma’am and as few as possible. But with more experience I realized that descriptions can be richer not only by reflecting on what that scene’s POV character might notice, but by adding some other sense as well. Is the room perfumed by a deodorizer? Does the carpeting tickle bare toes? Is the grandfather clock oppressive with its tick, tick tick.

The second thing I’ve realized is that the setting description can be trickled in — as the POV character become more aware.

~ Jim

Mary Buckham

Spot on Jim! As a character grows and changes over the course of a book or of a series one of the ways we can show that is in how they see or experience a Setting that meant something totally different earlier in a story or series. And I love your bringing up senses. Setting too often is regulated to simply a visual description instead of capturing the scents, the sounds and even the textures. Having some one stroking the velvet nap of a piece of furniture can pull the reader much much deeper into the scene as opposed to just telling the reader the sofa or chair was of velvet. I miss the Guppy classes — they were so much fun and I was always impressed at your willingness to be involved even being outnumbered by the women in the classes! Thanks for swinging by and sharing!

Millie Gagliano
Millie Gagliano

This is so cool. I hope to write a book some day. LOL! I’m a Ninja

Mary Buckham

Hi Millie! Go for your dream. It’s very do-able and when you’re ready let me know and I’ll support you every way possible. Thanks for visiting today and taking the time to read, gain some insights into what it means to write, and post. You rock!

Melinda Zedekar
Melinda Zedekar

Hello Mary,
Ninja Melinda here. 🙂 I love your examples and how you break it down and keep it simple. I don’t get lost in information overload or feel like I am reading a stuffy textbook.

Mary Buckham

Hi Melinda and thank you for your feedback! I’m into simple 🙂 I love tearing something apart to see how the individual pieces create the larger whole which is how I approached many of the elements of craft required to create an awesome final story. As readers we don’t see the pieces, but as writers it sure makes it easier to understand them in order to apply them. Thanks again ~ you’re a sweetheart!

Margaret Crowley
Margaret Crowley

Hey Mary:
Loved the Collin example of Katniss letting us insider her head to describe the velvet couch. I’ve started drafting these things (First shitty draft, second better, third in deep POV) Hopefully, I’ll get better and faster.
Thanks!
xxoo
Margs

Mary Buckham

Hi Margs! Absolutely you’ll get better the more you push yourself outside your comfort zone. Which is not easy to do and is also one of the reasons we default to describing a Setting based on what we as the writer see vs getting into the head, memories, emotions and skin of our characters. That’s down right exhausting. But if we write on a surface level the reader is kept on a surface level. Tickled pink that you were able to swing by today and share. Keep moving forward. I’m cheering you on!

PJ Friel

Hi Mary!

One of your ninjas here! Thanks for the great post! Description is one of my weak points so I appreciate every tip I can get. Your book is on my TBR list!

Mary Buckham

Hi PJ ~ trust me you’re not alone! When I was working directly with writers I kept seeing the same issues creating speed bumps for them so I looked around for resources that might help. There were so few on Setting and those that were written seemed to lump solutions into a one-approach-fits all writers theme that I ended up creating first workshops and then the books. Here’s hoping they can help you, too. Let me know 🙂 and thanks for stopping by today!

Carmen Fox

Hello Mary (“Sensei”),
I keep your book with me when I write. The annoying thing? Every time I dive back in, I find new things that I could have done better. Even though I’ve read the entire collection several times now. Some things I’ve improved in, like sensory details (especially smell), others I still struggle with. Yes. STILL! After all this time. I’m waiting for the day when it all falls into place. I know your books are testament to your skill in this area. But do you sometimes go back to a setting and think, “shoot, I could have done that better?”

Mary Buckham

Hi Carmen! All the time ~ that sound you can hear is my head banging! I think the writer who doesn’t think they can improve or are willing to keeping improving their game is the writer who’s skating by. That might sound harsh but it’s not. It’s like being a parent. If you think you have a handle on parenting because you’ve learned how to change diapers or handle the terrible-twos so you can coast through the teen years or once a child leaves home – you’re in for a rude awakening. One of the most impressive things I saw at one RWA Conference in going into a workshop was seeing 6 NYT authors (and I’m talking millions of books in print between them) in the front row, still open to learning and improving. Saying “I could have done that better” means you’re on the right track. Saying “I’ve done this before this is good enough” reflects poorly on you and the reader is the one that suffers. Not good in my book 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share. You’re on track and your willingness to keep working will pay off for you! I guarantee it.

Ginger Calem
Ginger Calem

You never fail to offer immediate tools to improve my writing. I love how you can use setting to have a character react to that setting (like Katniss and the velvet) to enrich the character’s developement.

Opens up your (MY) eyes to the possibilities!

Thank you.

Ninja-Ginja 😉

Mary Buckham

Hi Ginger! Love that you swung by today and learned something new. We grow and improve in micro measurements and that’s okay – as long as we’re open to doing that. 🙂 Can’t wait to get my hands on my first Ginger Calem published novel. Looking forward to that day!

Ginger Calem
Ginger Calem

Thanks, Mary! I’m looking forward to that day too. So. Much!! 🙂

Claudia Stephan
Claudia Stephan

Ninja Claudia checking in! Your blog addresses an element I find lacking in many books. As a reader, I mostly enjoy when a writer allows me to “see” the settings in a story, pulling me into the depths of the story. When I am deeply immersed in the described locations, I vicariously move alongside the characters and the adventure is mine. I often refer to returning to a particular setting, when I announce I am taking time to read my book. Returning to the living module on Mars now!

Mary Buckham

Claudia ~ wowser! You get the reward for traveling the furthest to post a comment . Too many times writers can forget what it means to be a reader. Not always intentionally and usually because we live with these characters and these Settings for weeks, months, even years, that we assume there’s more on the page than is really there. If an author is missing the power of Setting in their stories to help the reader experience the story on a deeper level they’d better have a whole lot of other craft techniques working at 100% or they will lose readers or never get published in the first place. Thanks for sharing ~ always vital to hear from a reader’s perspective!

Ping Wan
Ping Wan

Hi Mary,
I have attended your PNWA lectures on various topics. It’s great to see you here. I’m revising my first novel and I found setting is the most difficult part for me. Thank you so much for your insight on setting. I heard the term active setting before (from your book covers!) but this post really clicks with me. Many thanks again!

Mary Buckham

Hi Ping Wan ~ how fun to have a PNWA alumni swing by. Did you attend their recent Conference? Delighted that the post helps you. If you get to swing by on Thursday we’ll discuss a different aspect of Setting that can really make a difference in your writing, too! Thanks so much for sharing and all the best with your writing!

Ping Wan
Ping Wan

Hi Mary again, I didn’t attend this year’s PNWA conference, but I attended last year. From last year’s conference, I found that I have a ton to learn so I saved the money for books and time for learning this year. Again, I’m so glad to see you here.

Linda Martin
Linda Martin

One of your Ninja’s here Mary. What a enjoyable post I really got alot out of it.

Mary Buckham

Thank you Linda! Tickled that you came by and saw a little behind the writer’s curtain. My hubby is always amazed at what it actually takes to pull a book together (he’s a visual artist vs a writer) but even he, once he understands more about the different craft elements will look up and say – ‘boy, if this author had only done X then it would have made a huge difference.’ . Thanks again for visiting and sharing!

Decadent Kane
Decadent Kane

Truth-
I never saw settings this way. I’m pretty sure I’ve been writing them how I might see them, not so much how my characters do. So I will try and put this into practice as I revise my future books.

This is a great informational source and I appreciate Mary coming over to share this with us.
~Decadent

Mary Buckham

Hi Decadent ~ isn’t it fun when a light bulb goes off? I kept circling around this issue of how to make Setting accessible for authors and for readers. Love that Jami invited me here to share and that you gleaned some nuggets to use. Thanks so much for sharing!

chemistken

I’m reading Mary’s “Writing Active Setting” right now. Much useful information. Thanks, Mary.

Mary Buckham

Hi Ken! I hope you’re learning tons from the book and, if you have a few seconds, you’re up to leaving a review for it. That can make a huge difference in letting other writers know how easy it can be to make a huge leap forward in their own writing. Thanks for sharing and all the best in your endeavors!

Amanda
Amanda

Hi Mary, I agree with decadent. I’ve been writing settings just to have something for my readers to “see”. I find the hardest place to put it is during dialogue. I’ll suddenly realize I have “talking heads” and just input setting to give my characters something to do. Your books are on my wish list now. Thanks for the great post.

Mary Buckham

Hi Amanda! Tickled pink that you’ve already gained a valuable insight simply by this discussion (thank you Jami for making this happen!). If it helps I’ve tried to keep the books as affordable as possible ($2.99 each for the e-version) I know that Amazon will let you buy and return if the info doesn’t help you. But I’m betting you’ll find info info in each book to want to keep them handy 🙂 Thanks for sharing and have fun with your writing!

Kimberly Dawn
Kimberly Dawn

Hi Mary! Ninja Kimberly here! Grin! I am not a writer, but I find it interesting to read how you suggest writing settings. I have actually considered picking up your series, just so I can learn more about it. 🙂

Mary Buckham

Hi Kimberly! My goal when writing craft books is to make the techniques accessible to any writer (or reader) in as easy and straight forward a manner as possible. And at a price that doesn’t break the book budget 🙂 I strongly feel that the more high-quality books there are that are available is a win-win for writers and readers. Writers will be challenged to remain at the top of their game and readers will reap stronger stories. Thanks ever so much for visiting the blog today and for posting. You’re the best!

Siv Ekman
Siv Ekman

Hi!

This was just about exactly what I needed right now. I’m re-writing a story with two POV’s – characters with vastly different backgrounds, but often they are in the same place. I’m struggling with staying in the current POV, but find Im describing things in the same manner. Which just don’t work.

Thank you!

Mary Buckham

Hello Siv! I see this all the time. There is so much that we’re juggling in crafting a full length novel that Setting often gets pushed aside while we’re dealing with POV, Conflict, Characterization etc which are all vital. But what’s fun is learning how to make your Setting show all those other issues. It’s not about the furniture, it’s about the characters and that furniture–how it reveals who they are, what they value, if they are in conflict with another character by being out of their element in the Setting. Lots of powerful potential that can make a huge difference in the reader’s experience. Delighted you visited the blog today. Come back Thursday when we tackled a different element of Setting 🙂

Kim
Kim

Love Jami’s blog. She always has such great information and wonder guest. Today is no exception. I’ve struggled slightly with detail placement information in my stories. I look forward to reading your books and gathering more useful knowledge. This posted has already got me thinking an itching to get back to my writing. Thank you so much. 🙂

Mary Buckham

Kim ~ nicest compliment a writing craft instructor can received is knowing they can excited writers to dig in deeper into their own work to see how to apply the concepts. I’m with you in appreciating what Jami has to offer writers and readers here. Delighted you visited and shared!

Brooke Bumgardner

Hi Mary! Great post. Even though I don’t write books, it is helpful to know about writing when writing for my blog. I am now an enlightened ninja. 😀

Mary Buckham

LOL! Oh, dangerous Brooke! I’ll grin every time I see you post as a Ninja and think – there goes an enlightened one 🙂 Appreciate your swinging by and posting here. Ninja high five!

Casssandra L

I think I took all of Mary’s on-line classes and now have the paperback version of her Writing Active Setting that I’ve just about finished and will be keeping beside me when I revise my latest WIPs.

Mary Buckham

Thank you Cassandra! I think there’s a 12 Step program for survivors of my online workshops Seriously it’s the willingness of writers who seek out instructors who challenge them to be better that pays off over the long haul. I remember in school I’d listen to hear who was considered a ‘hard’ teacher and then ask why. Many times it was because that instructor expected more out of their students. Which IMO was a good thing 🙂 Thanks for picking up a copy of the book and I’m cheering you along in your writing career!

Brenda Rumsey
Brenda Rumsey

Hi! I’m one of your Ninja’s and so thankful for the time you spent with your readers. I’ve got a story in my head that is dying to be written and know how important the setting can be. This is a great post and I’ve wanted to get this set of books but have not yet been able to swing it. I don’t know about everyone else, but my main problem in writing is transitions. I do great at writing a scene (at least I think so) but it’s tying everything together that causes me a problem. Working on it….LOL.

Mary Buckham

Brenda ~ this is fabulous news! Don’t worry about the transitions just yet. Write around them so that you’re writing and the transitions will learn to take care of themselves. In fact this Thursday’s blog will cover how to anchor the reader quickly into a new scene or chapter using Setting details as a form of transition. So the answers are there and might be easier to absorb the more you write. I’ll try to keep my Ninjas informed if the books go on sale which I hope will help. Keep writing and moving toward your dream ~ I’ll cheer you on!

Sher Giambra
Sher Giambra

Ninja Sher here….you do such great things for your Ninja’s…but am still looking for those cookies…lol

Mary Buckham

ROTFL! Sher ~ I do adore a woman who knows what she wants! I have this image of Writing Active Cookies with crumbs going every where 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to swing by and share. Next time I’ll make sure there are at least cyber cookies available. Those are the kind with no calories 🙂

Anne R. Allen

What a great piece, Mary! I’m going to direct writers here who get caught up in those endless “passive” descriptions. I never knew how to explain why so many descriptions don’t work but you’ve done it perfectly here. Thanks!

Mary Buckham

Thank you Anne! I appreciate your willingness to share and to help other writers. I kept doing the same thing ~ tried to figure out where to send writers to learn more about this overlooked craft element. Then finally wrote the books . I might not have the time to teach the classes as much any more but the books can get the word out and help. Thank you again!

Tina Stitzer
Tina Stitzer

Ninja Tina here. POV is something I’m always working on improving. I have Book 1 & 2 of Writing Active Setting and refer to them. Always look forward to learning from you.

Mary Buckham

Thank you Tina! What a nice thing to hear 🙂 I don’t think we can ever learn enough about POV and ways to improve it. I’m finding it fascinating as I’m pulling info and examples together for an upcoming book on dialogue how much understanding POV can work for or against strong dialogue. Thank for swinging by and sharing!!

Cait Donnelly
Cait Donnelly

Hi, Mary. Ninja Cait here. There’s always a strong temptation to drown the reader in all the wonderful details you’ve built up in your own mind about setting–especially so when you’re doing world-building, but when you’re pretty sure the reader is familiar with the setting. You have to be pretty bloody-minded about whittling down everything that holds the progress of the story back. What’s important? What’s evocative to the character? Is there a clue under that aspidistra? Does the plant tell something about who owns it?
But never fear — something I’ve learned from you! You can always sprinkle those unused details through the narrative, ao they don’t hit the reader in an overwhelming block that says, “Skip me and get to the freakin’story!”

Cait Donnelly
Cait Donnelly

Oops! That should have said, “EVEN when you’e pretty sure…”

Mary Buckham

Spot on analysis Cait! First draft – put everything in or leave everything out – but if you do then you’d better be sure to revisit the story and learn how to finesse the balance in your writing. Rule of thumb – if you allocate word space to something – Setting, Dialogue, a secondary Character – you are showing/telling the reader this matters. So make sure it does 🙂 Thanks for stopping by this evening and sharing!!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Ooh great tips! Haha, I have the opposite problem from Jami: I write almost NIL setting description, because I as a reader don’t really care about setting descriptions and almost always just skip them when I see them. So I felt I shouldn’t expect my readers to be interested in setting descriptions either, when I myself am so indifferent to them as a reader, lol. So the only things I describe are things you ABSOLUTELY need to know. Even during my most generous moments, I don’t give much beyond what color things are and other very basic things like that. But there have been readers and friends who tell me that I’m TOO stingy when it comes to describing settings. And I think they’re right, especially after reading this post. 🙂 (My dislike of reading setting descriptions in general might seem strange since I really like reading literary classics, haha.) I really love the Hunger Games example, especially as I’ve read the book before. Great points about using deep POV to describe things that matter to that character, to reveal character development, emotion, and backstory. I like the backstory revelation use of setting descriptions most. :D. It’s good to think of setting in terms of revealing character too, since characters are what I care most about in stories. If the info is character-relevant, I’m more interested; if it’s character-irrelevant, I’m not as interested! Hmm for some successful setting description examples that I’ve read, there’s Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of… Read more »
Mary Buckham

Serena ~ be sure and check back on Thursday when we talk about using Setting, and what elements of Setting to anchor a reader quickly into our stories. Without some Setting details the reader can be held at arm’s length because they don’t know where they are and are disoriented. IF you’re leaving the reader to focus on the wrong questions –where am I, how much time has passed since the last chapter, are we in the same place we were before when the POV character changes–then they are not engaged in your story. The Setting in many of Poe’s stories were characters in themselves and that’s why they are vital to what he was intending. Too much Setting can trip us up depending on what type of stories we are writing just as much as too little can also trip us up. 🙂 Thanks so much for swinging by and leaving a comment. I do appreciate it!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Thanks for your quick reply too! 😀 Good point about the reader being disengaged or confused if the setting or setting transition is not clear enough. I really need to be less stingy on my setting descriptions, haha.

Oooh that’s interesting that Poe’s settings are characters in themselves. 😀

That’s true about different types of stories (and I guess genres) perhaps needing different amounts of setting description. A futuristic sci-fi world would probably need more description than a modern day one.

Mary Buckham

Absolutely! A number of murder mysteries or Urban Fantasy series have particular challenges regarding Setting – orientating new readers to the series as to the world of the characters without repeating the same information readers who are fans of the series know so well. So the author doesn’t want to describe the same house in the same way or assume that all the readers of the current book know the world because they have read all the previous books. Fun challenges!

tiger

The Irish ninjas creeps into active settings, slithering through a night as dark as chocolate and cold as her steel shuriken throwing stars. A full moon shines in a starless sky, reflecting. . . nothing. Ninja invisibility. 🙂 I remember the lessons learned from your courses!

Mary Buckham

Too funny Tiger! Yup, evocative Setting that sets an emotional tone based on specific word choices. Gold stars for remembering 🙂 Thanks for popping in here and sharing! Cheers!

Jacquie Biggar

Hi Mary, Great post. I was lucky enough to participate in your class on active settings last year. I can’t begin to thank you enough for what I learned there. I may have other issues with my WIP, but I always receive high compliments on my settings, 🙂

Mary Buckham

Hi Jacquie! How lovely to see you here and thank you for the kind words! Delighted that the course helped you. So much to learn. One step at a time. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and have fun with your writing!!

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[…] you missed Part One, be sure to check Tuesday’s post, where Mary shared one of the biggest hurdles to writing great descriptions. She also gave a simple tip to make our Settings come alive for […]

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[…] From beginning to end, there are a lot of details writers have to handle. Janice Hardy lists 4 things to avoid on your first page, Susan Squires discusses writing sex scenes, and Mary Buckham handles writing active settings. […]

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[…] to comments—in addition to her great posts on improving our setting descriptions through deep point of view and anchoring our scenes. And congratulations to Amanda and Serena for their wins in […]

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[…] of non-POV characters, we can—and should—use our POV character to share the details. Just as we make setting descriptions active by showing the details through our POV character’s view, we should do the same with character […]

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[…] benefited from Mary’s advice last year on using point of view for settings and on how to anchor settings, and now she has a new two-book series on hooks. With two […]

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[…] the character’s voice for all sentences, and share only their perceptions. (Would the POV character notice the chair’s fabric or know the name of that flower? Would […]

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