July 24, 2014

Writing Active Settings, Part 2 — Guest: Mary Buckham

Anchor on a beach with text: How to Anchor Our Settings

I’m still in San Antonio, getting ready for my presentation at the Romance Writers of America National Conference. But don’t worry, USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham is back with Part Two of her guest post on writing active settings. *smile*

If 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 readers.

(Mary is also offering a different giveaway on each post, so don’t miss your chance to comment and enter. We’ll be selecting a name from each post this weekend.)

Today, she’s going to share the second biggest hurdle to writing great descriptions. Yay! Take it away, Mary!


Anchoring Our Settings (& Our Readers)

Have you ever read a book, set it down at the end of a chapter because it was late or time to stop reading and, when you returned to it, you struggled to get back into the story?

Or you’re reading along and are jarred out of the story because you become confused, especially about where the characters are or how much time has passed since a scene or chapter break?

It’s important to never jar a reader, making them suddenly aware that they are in fact reading rather than experiencing.

How do you get around this? Anchoring.

Anchoring, or orienting the reader as to the when and where of the story, is very important to the success of a novel. Anchoring is created when the reader is better able to picture the where and when as well as the who is in the scene and what are they doing at this particular point in the story, which creates a stronger emotional tie by the reader to the character in the story, and thus to the story.

Is Anchoring Really Such a Major Problem?

Since most of us have only read published novels, it’s hard to show how this small craft detail can separate the published from the unpublished, but if you’ve had the chance to read unpublished work for contests, or worked with newer writers, you’ve likely seen this lack of anchoring time and time again. There’s a reason for this lack—two, actually.

#1: What We Imagine Doesn’t End Up on the Page

The first reason, and the most common one, occurs because as we write we can be so deep into the world of our characters that we assume more information is on the page than is really there.

So when we say mountain we assume the reader can see a ten thousand-foot former volcano while the reader may imagine a thousand-foot bump rising out of a flat landscape, or a jagged granite edifice that fronts more mountains such as how one sees the Rocky Mountains if traveling west from the plains. The reader’s vision is based on their knowledge and experience, not on what you’re showing them on the page.

If your character is flying a plane that’s lost power midair and is heading right for the mountain, these interpretations will make a huge difference.

NOTE: Specific details can paint a much clearer and stronger image for the reader than generic, vague details. If your Setting matters to the story, aim for specific, like making that plane heading for the mountain a Cessna 206. If your Setting does not play as large a part in your story—you could be in any small town in any state—the reader still needs to be anchored from chapter to chapter.

#2: Interruptions at Scene and Chapter Breaks

The second most common mistake is forgetting that the reader may have set the book down at the end of the last chapter, or scene, or you have ended a scene in one location and opened the next chapter, or scene, in a new location. Either way the reader needs to get re-oriented quickly so they can slip back into the story world and move forward with the action.

Especially at the beginning of a chapter, or beginning of a new scene, it’s vital to quickly orient the reader as to where the character is, who the character is and how much time has passed since the last chapter or scene.

Why? Because you the author broke the story suspension by breaking the story.

Think of this as a commercial interruption. You have to re-engage the reader back into the story by raising a story question or hook when you left them off and quickly answer the who, what, when, where questions that are raised if there’s any passage of time since they read the previous chapter or scene.

If the reader is struggling too hard to figure out whose point of view they are in (who), has the action changed (what), passage of time (when), or the Setting (where) they are not as engaged in the story itself. The longer this goes on the easier to set the book down again and walk away.

Solutions: How Should We Anchor Our Scenes?

  • If there’s no passage in time between the last chapter or scene, echo without repeating the same information in the same way to make it quickly clear time and place have not changed.
    Example, a fight ended the last chapter with a hard upper cut to an attacker’s jaw, new chapter starts with the swing that didn’t connect.
  • If there is a passage of time reveal that within the first 2-3 paragraphs by using change in lighting, quick glance at a clock/watch, or in dialogue.
  • If the Setting has changed, reorient the reader with 2-3 sentences of introducing the new Setting—sensory details can help here, as can contrast.
  • If the point of view character is the only change reference from the new character something the old character had noticed or interacted with but in a different way.

Bonus Tip for Finding Missing Anchors:

  • Give your critique partner or beta reader just the first three paragraphs of your new scene or chapter without the previous one and ask how quickly they were pulled back into the story and, if they weren’t, why not.


Thank you, Mary! This is fantastic information and some great tips! I try to be intentional when writing my setting descriptions, but I need to go check my anchoring at the beginning of each scene.

*makes a mental note to add that to my list of editing items to check*

I especially love the Bonus Tip for how to find those problematic, missing transitions. Thank you so much for sharing!

In Mary’s workshop this past April, she pointed out that the longer we wait to anchor readers at a new scene or chapter, the more confused or disconnected they are. They’ll be looking for any clue to make them feel less adrift, and that means they’re paying less attention to the story. Not good.

Book cover of Writing Active Setting: The Complete How-to GuideIn her Writing Active Setting series, Mary shares tips on subtle ways we can allude to the where (geography, climate, social context, character impression, etc.) and the when (light and shadows, behavior of animals, foreshadowing of events to come, etc.) for our settings.

She shares tons of examples that illustrate how to put her advice into practice. The complete set includes a chapter on anchoring our settings, as well as chapters on each of the other ways we can make our descriptions work harder and smarter.


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: or

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 3
Mary wants to hear from you about whether you’ve ever experienced being disoriented or lost in a story. Have you stopped to ask why? Feel free to share.

As a special treat from Mary, one lucky commenter will win a free e-copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING Book 3: Anchoring, Action, as a Character and More! Yay! This is Book Three from her complete series.

Had you heard of this tip to anchor the beginnings of our scenes and chapters? Do you remember to anchor during drafting, or do you need to add this to your editing list (like I do)? Are certain types of transitions harder for you to anchor? Do you struggle with getting the image in your head down on the page? Do you have any tips to add, like how you decide how many (or what kind of) setting details to include?

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Unintended Guardian for FREE!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Transitions are one of my weak points. I don’t even think in transitions. (I actually confuse myself, sometimes.)

But since I know that, I’ve worked at training myself to eye my chapter and scene openings with an eye to “Who and where, doing what?” I ideally put this in the first sentence, if not the first paragraph. I definitely seek to put it no further down than paragraph 3.

My stories are complicated enough, with the characters and plots. A few missing transitions could make the difference between a reader being intrigued enough to keep reading and discover the answers, or being frustrated enough to ditch the story.

Mary Buckham

Hi Carrade ~ you’re understanding exactly what we’re discussing here. It doesn’t matter if in our first drafts we write without the transitional information, but understanding that we need this key piece of the craft means we can find ways to work around the issue so that our readers don’t suffer. Robert Crais is a master at transitions and I love studying his work just for that piece. Thanks for sharing and gold stars on knowing what is missing and finding a way to fix that! Cheers!

PJ Friel

Those are really great tips, Mary! I especially like the last one of having the new POV character interact with something the previous POV character noticed, but in a different way.

/ninja poof

Mary Buckham

Hi PJ! Isn’t it fun when we discover small incremental changes that can make a huge difference? Love it! Thanks for sharing and swinging by today. All the best!

Claudia Stephan
Claudia Stephan

Now you see me, now you don’t. Practicing my ninja skills, while reading the psychology behind anchoring the reader. Mary, you explained this dilemma very well. If I cannot relate to a setting or described scene because I lack a point of reference, I simply loose interest in the story. A good writer is aware that I am reading, whether they can see me or not. A well written novel does not over explain or leave so much to my own imagination that I am no longer on the same page with the author. Overuse of adjectives or flowery descriptions turn me off the best story. Striking the perfect balance appears to be be the key to a firm connection with the reader. Concise anchors recapture my full attention, after a break. I expect a book that is written in a way that I can visualize what the writer intended for me to see, that I learn about elements new to me and to leave enough for my own imagination to work with, without jarring me back into the story line. I much prefer to scan over a concise explanation of something I happen to be familiar with to rereading a passage that makes me feel I missed something. Thank you for sharing the technical side of the craft of effective writing!

Mary Buckham

Claudia ~ I so enjoy hearing from a well read reader! As writers, many of us start assuming all readers are like us. That they read in the same way or see what’s on the page the way we see. One of the biggest challenges for a writer is to get perspective on their own work. It’s not impossible but it is challenging. Setting a story aside for a time before we revise or using a critique partner or group is helpful, but even there, if that person or people have seen the story too many times, they stop reading as a cold reader. So their feedback can be impacted. Thank you for sharing and coming past today. Always lovely to learn from you!

Jim Jackson


Love the bonus tip for your beta readers. Now I just need to find a “beta minus one” reader willing to read just the first couple of paragraphs in each scene so I can fix that problem before giving the whole thing to the other beta readers.

~ Jim

Mary Buckham

Jim ~ it really does take a village to bring a book to fruition doesn’t it? The good news is that if this is an issue that can trip you up, often by paying diligent attention, and using outside help, you can start thinking and writing in terms that address the issue in the first draft or the first revision. In other words – it can get easier 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share and stop by!

Sher Giambra
Sher Giambra

hope your having a good time in San Antonio….wish i could be there

Mary Buckham

If this was meant to get to Jami I’m sure she is – I’ve been watching the FB postings. 🙂 If this was for me – I’m staying in the writing cave, getting the next non-fiction book written 🙂 Thank you for sharing and taking the time to visit!!

Donna Moore
Donna Moore

Hi Mary- Ninja Donna here,
I’m not even going to begin to understand all the technical things that go into writing a book lol. That said reading the tips you have been referring to does help someone like me who is loves to read but is NOT a writer understand what you go through. I just wanted to say that you do an amazing job as your books keep the reader glued to the page experiencing the book as though we’re living it ourselves. I hate when the authors use fillers and spend six pages( which I end up skipping ) trying to describe things that have to real purpose in the book. I can’t skip a word in your books I love it!! You are the perfect person to teach and help other authors as you have it down to a science!
Thanks for entertaining us with you awesome work!

Mary Buckham

Hi Donna! What a lovely posting and thank you! As writers we can spend years perfecting one craft technique after another but we only really know if what we’re attempting to do works when we get feedback from readers like you and Claudia and Sher! Makes a huge difference to us and gives us a reason to knuckle down and make each book stronger than the last one. Really appreciate your taking the time to visit and share today!!

Laurel W.
Laurel W.

Love the hints, Mary.

It’s great to have a list to keep to the side while working on the revision. Transitions are always a challenge. I have to constantly remind myself vary the techniques so that they don’t become redundant.

Laurel W.

Mary Buckham

Smart Laurel! Not falling into the one solution must be applied to every chapter Not so. Unfortunately there was only so much room here to address all the issues involved with transitions . So glad you made this point and thank you for stopping in today!

Judythe Morgan

Man you nailed me and my writing. Too often I’m there with my characters, but the poor reader doesn’t get the same picture I’m seeing. Love all the anchoring tips. I’m off to review the first three chapters of my WIP and be sure the reader is with me. I thank you for a great post, Mary, and so do my readers. 😉

Mary Buckham

Delighted the reminder was a timely one Judythe! n a perfect world we’d all have writing coaches that would be right beside us keeping us on the mark and at the top of our game. As it is we muddle through and keeping pushing ourselves to write stronger, write better and even right faster. 🙂 Gluttons for punishment = authors! Cheers and I appreciate your visiting today!

Decadent Kane
Decadent Kane

I’ve seen bad transitions before in my fellow writers works, and I can relate. I tend to think mine are ok- but what a great bonus tip to actually give the crit partner or bets that one section and see how it worked out. love it and i intend to try it. Thanks!

Mary Buckham

Hi Decadent ~ delighted that you found a helpful tip here. There’s enough to juggle in writing that making something easier is refreshing! Thanks for visiting today and all the best with your writing!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

I like this tip of needing to anchor within the first 2-3 paragraphs, as this makes the process more concrete. Hmm for POV anchoring, I tend to start my scenes with the name of the POV character in the first sentence; often their name is the first word in the first sentence. I do find it confusing (even in some published works) when the first name I see in the scene is NOT the POV character, since I automatically assume that the first name seen IS the POV character.

As for time transitions, I usually very explicitly indicate this in the first sentence of my scenes, e.g. “The next day…” But perhaps this is TOO explicit, or used way too often, haha. Since the society where my characters live in have no watches or clocks, I could use their dialogue or change in lighting (especially the former)—good tip, this. 😀

“If there’s no passage in time between the last chapter or scene, echo without repeating the same information in the same way to make it quickly clear time and place have not changed.
Example, a fight ended the last chapter with a hard upper cut to an attacker’s jaw, new chapter starts with the swing that didn’t connect.”

This is a nice tip too.

I’m definitely adding anchoring to my editing to-do list too, lol.

Thanks, Mary, for these pointers! 🙂

Mary Buckham

Glad you found these ideas helpful Serena! The one about the light is particularly useful because it’s showing not telling. The slant of the light now painted the floor in a golden glow vs three hours had passed :-0 Yes, a few more words with that approach but it doesn’t always have to be that way and it does change up our writing so the reader feels deeper into our stories. Thank you for sharing and all the best with your writing!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yeah, the light tip is one that I’ve never tried so I’ll like to try it one day. 😀

Btw, though I read mostly published stories, I do enjoy reading online (i.e. unpublished) stories as well, and one thing that really irks me, is when they don’t clearly indicate who is speaking which quotation. There doesn’t have to be a “Hermione said” tag there, but just SOMETHING to make it clear that X said this, and Y said that. Unless it’s very easy to tell from the content who’s speaking, it’s generally very confusing to read several lines of “naked dialogue” (dialogue quotations without a name or a pronoun anywhere to tell us who’s talking.) This happens in some published books too, and it’s annoying to have to go back to the beginning of where these “naked dialogue” quotations started, and count down to figure out who said this specific quote.

That’s my personal pet peeve in writing anyway, haha.


I don’t worry so much about transitions in the first draft. I’m more like jami, I have a list of things to look for and this is one of them. I see a lot of what Serena spoke of above in my favorite writers, using the pov characters name in the first few sentences. Works for me.

Mary Buckham

Great Amanda! First drafts are just that – get some words down so you have something to work with. As long as you have a plan to address issues that can cause you speed bumps you’re fine. It’s not the first draft that matters as much as what is or isn’t in the final draft that counts. Thanks for sharing. I really appreciate it!

Tina Stitzer
Tina Stitzer

Ninja Tina again. Great topic for today. I’m doing Bootcamp and need to go back and see where to break up my chapters since I was jump writing what I could on a day to day basis. Not plotting this out has been hard. Your tips are much appreciated.

Mary Buckham

Thanks for visiting today Tina and how exciting that you’re doing the Bootcamp. Look for where you’ve raised strong story questions as a good place to end a chapter because that will compel the reader to turn the page to the next chapter. Don’t forget your use of strong hooks at both chapter end and chapter beginning and have fun with the process! I know you will. 🙂 Take care and I appreciate your coming on by and sharing!

Gry Ranfelt

Aaah, this works 🙂 I thought this would be another thing before I write a scene where I’ll be like OMG HOW MANY THINGS ARE THERE TO THINK ABOUT?! but this works. Right after reading your previous post I started implementing it.
A character was just confronted with someone from a socially inferior status and now she’s noticing all kinds of things about her own home and friends’ attitudes that imply that maybe they’re enjoying too many privileges. 😀
Though there are a lot of things to think about before writing a scene:
Who’s in it?
What do they want?
What does the scene end up with? What are new goals? Reactions?
What does it foreshadow?
And now: how does the POV experience the setting.


this is a whole lot difficult than I excepted. Wow I have to sit up and regroup. ahh. anchor the reader. Thank you Mary.

Mary Buckham

Hi Gry! There is a lot to think about plus make it look seamless to the reader as if everything was written as a first draft. It’s amazing that more writers don’t succumb to heavy drinking . Instead of how does the POV experiences the setting – which is only one of the ways to maximize showing not telling – I’d have you think more in terms of how quickly do you let the reader know whose POV you are in and how much time has passed since the last scene/chapter. You can use Setting to reveal that or internalization, dialogue or flat out telling 🙂 Change things up so a reader doesn’t feel like they are getting the same info in the same way each scene and you’ll do great! Thanks for taking the time to swing by and visit. I appreciate it!

Ping Wan
Ping Wan

Hi Mary, thank you for the post. You answered another of my questions as a new writer. My husband read my first draft and once a while he’d ask where my MC was. Clearly I have a lot homework to do! Many thanks for your tips!

Calisa Rhose

Great tips, Mary! Thanks for bringing Mary on board, Jami. Hope you had a wonderful time at RWA Nationals.


[…] we have Part One, and come back Thursday for Part Two. Take it away, […]


[…] Kouguell shares how to pace a scene, Mary Buckham shows us how to write an active setting, and Corporal Allen Norton talks about terrorism information for […]


[…] talked about descriptions here before, we focused on settings and how it’s important to describe our settings enough to anchor our readers. Our descriptions need to establish whether our characters are inside or outside, on a spaceship or […]


[…] When readers start a new story, they’re essentially exploring a new world of characters, settings, and rules. We’ve discussed before the importance of giving anchors to readers for the setting. […]


[…] little description can leave our readers floating without an anchor (which can cause many problems). Too much description can drag our story’s […]

Write Romance? Sign Up for Jami's New Workshop on the Romance Beat Sheet! Click here for more information...