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Make your setting active to keep your reader engaged

When reading other authors’ novels, do you ever find yourself skipping over the setting descriptions? I do. If that description goes on for more than a few paragraphs or, God forbid, a page, I’m annoyed.

I know some bestselling genre novels do this and get away with it, I think, because of the big names of the authors—they come from an earlier time (you know, when raptors roamed the earth). But, after a few weeks, they seem to fall off the list. Those books that tend to stay on the list for weeks and weeks (I’m thinking books like The Help and Water for Elephants), don’t annoy us with pages of dead description but have learned how to tell us what we need to know when we need to know it.

One way to keep your reader engaged in your story is to make sure your setting is active. Instead of dropping big chunks of setting description in your scene—which may have been all the rage when Jane Austin was alive but is a sure way to bore your reader to death now—is to drip in bits of description and to “make it active.” What do I mean by that?

The easiest way to explain is to show you a “before and after” example from my work-in-progress: 

Before:

Where some of the homes along the river road featured long grass and unkempt yards, the grass and weeds in this yard were just plain dead. A concrete walkway led from the driveway on the east side of the house to the front porch. A solitary dandelion pushed up through one of the cracks, laying siege to the concrete like the lone survivor of a great war. As I stepped over the weed and approached the front porch, I saw gaping holes in three of the five steps leading up to the house. I wouldn’t be surprised if it collapsed under our weight.

“You go first,” I said to Noah.

After:

Noah and I made our way to the front porch. I stepped over a solitary dandelion pushing up through a crack in the walkway, as if laying siege to the concrete like the lone survivor of a great war. Three of the five steps sported gaping holes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire structure collapsed under our weight.

“You go first,” I said.

In my “before” excerpt I had even more description before the above section. I’d dropped in a big glob of description that just sat there. In my edit, I looked at all that description and asked myself the following questions:

  • Does this move the scene forward?
  • What setting is absolutely necessary to the story and not just added decoration?
  • Is there anything I can delete?
  • Is there anything I can move somewhere else?
  • Is there a way to make the description more active?

In the “after” excerpt, I deleted the first sentence (maybe I’ll use it elsewhere); I had my narrator step over (active) the flower instead of just describing the flower; I removed the filter words “I saw” and described what she saw instead; and I tightened the entire page, bringing the word count from 110 to 64. Tight prose will also help my reader stay in the flow.

In your editing process, think about how you can make your setting active and ask yourself the questions above. Who do you want to emulate? An author whose work comes and goes or one that creates a lasting work of art? It’s all in the details.

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