Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Case of the Vanishing Setting

As authors, we usually consider ourselves the masters of the crimes committed in our stories—not the victims. But, as Sherlock, Poirot, and Castle will tell you, the sneakiest crimes are always those in which the victim doesn’t even realize he’s been ripped off. Such is the Case of the Vanishing Setting.

This is one of the most common problems I encounter in unpublished manuscripts, and it’s one most authors don’t even realize they’ve fallen prey to. Mostly, this is because, as the authors, we have a crystalline image of our settings. We see everything so perfectly that we don’t always realize we’re not providing the reader the necessary details to allow him to see the setting. The result is White Wall Syndrome. Because readers have no visual clues to construct the setting, they visualize the characters in a hazy white space. To put it mildly, it’s confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying.

How is it our settings can just arbitrarily vanish from our scenes? Let’s take a look at an example:

Marjolaine stopped to talk to Annie. She crossed her arms. “I don’t get it. Why did you publish those lies about me?”

Annie pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t publish lies. I publish the truth. You did steal that kid’s piggy bank.”

“It was my kid’s piggy bank!”

“So? You still stole it.”

“It was a just punishment. He pulled his sister’s hair.”

“You call that a just punishment? What kind of mother are you?”

“The kind that sues for libel!”

Now, admittedly, this mistake is a bit difficult to illustrate properly in just a few paragraphs. There’s nothing technically wrong with my example. A few lines of dialogue and character interaction without mention of the setting is not only acceptable but often necessary. But imagine that this scene goes on for a full page with no mention of the setting. Then the problems become three-fold:

Problem #1:

Readers have no idea where the characters are. Are they at Marjolaine’s house? Are they at Annie’s office at the newspaper/magazine/station? Are they on the street or at a café?

Problem #2:

Readers have no idea what this setting looks like. Even had I revealed that the exchange took place at Annie’s magazine office, readers still have no physical details around which to build the scene. How many chairs are there? Is there a window? Are they speaking in private, or are other people in the room or just outside the open door? Is the office that of an editor or just a lowly cubicle? We’re missing all kinds of opportunities to learn more about Annie and her job simply because we’re not able to see where she works.

Problem #3:

Because we can’t see the setting, we also can’t visualize the characters’ interaction with the setting. How are they moving within this space? Are they both sitting down? Is Annie sitting while Marjolaine stands? Or is Annie scooping papers from the printer as she rushes to leave on assignment? Not only does this scene give the reader nothing but white walls, it also turns the characters into talking heads.

Fortunately, the solution is both intuitive and fun. Fleshing out settings can bring our stories to life and give us opportunities to grow closer to our characters and learn more about them. If we were to correct the problems in our original example, the new and improved version might look something like this:

Marjolaine stopped at the Gossip Gala building to talk to Annie. She stormed into the huge, cluttered office and kicked the door shut behind her. Feet spread on the threadbare carpet, she crossed her arms. “I don’t get it. Why did you publish those lies about me?”

In the corner of the room, Annie looked up from the printer. It clicked and whirred, choking on a paper jam. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t publish lies. I publish the truth.” She yanked the papers from the printer feed and threw them in the general direction of the waste bin under the desk. From the looks of the trash on the floor, she wasn’t any better an aim the rest of the time than she was now. “You did steal that kid’s piggy bank.”

“It was my kid’s piggy bank!”

“So? You still stole it.” She plopped down in her big swivel chair and hitched it closer to the desk. She didn’t look up at Marjolaine as she pawed through the mess of papers and crushed soda cans to grab a thin leather briefcase.

“It was a just punishment.” Marjolaine stomped forward and planted both hands on the desk. “He pulled his sister’s hair.”

Annie finally looked up, eyebrows knit. For a moment, the only sound in the office was the garbage truck rattling through the alley outside the window and the buzz of reporters talking in the other room. Finally, she shook her head. “You call that a just punishment? What kind of mother are you?”

Marjolaine could have slapped her. Instead, she reached out and swiped all the junk on the desk onto the floor. Then she stood up and tugged her blazer jacket straight. “The kind that sues for libel!”

See the difference? Suddenly, we have not just an animated discussion floating somewhere in the ether, but a visible and believable argument between two women in a concrete setting. Run an eye through your scenes and make sure you’ve given readers the clues they need to see your setting. They’ll thank you!

Tell me your opinion: Do your characters interact with the setting in your most recent scene?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post. In a writing circle I was once asked to do an exercise. Write a piece of dialogue between two people leaving a couple of lines between each speech (in our case it was an argument between opposite sexes about their relationship). Then pass the dialogue to the person next to you. When you receive dialogue from someone you put setting and actions in to their dialogue. And then you all read them out. Great fun and fascinating how your vision of say, an argumemt in a kitchen that you wrote, is made into an argument in a bar, or at the school gate by someone else. It really drives home the setting point, as does your article. 🙂

  2. What a marvelous, detailed and inspiring post.

    Do your characters interact with the setting in your most recent scene?

    In a word: NO.
    And that is what was missing and left me hanging my head in despair.

    So… Back to the keyboard.

    Thank you.

    • Same problem with my characters! Thank you this is one of my problems. Nahh.. 26 more chapters to check for floating heads. (oops.)

  3. @Christopher: I’m not generally one for writing exercises, but that one sounds not only fun, but very beneficial.

    @Lori: Glad the post hit the spot! Happy fleshing out!

  4. This is one of my big weaknesses. It’s hard for me to focus both on character interaction and interaction with the setting when I’m writing. Usually what I do is focus on the characters when I first write (longhand) and then intersperse bits of setting when I type it up.

  5. Wonderful post. I think I do a fairly good job of having my characters interacting with their setting, and it can be fun to use the setting in new ways. To modify Chekhov: If there’s a pool table at the beginning of the scene, someone must throw a pool ball at someone else by the end of it.

  6. @Sarah: I do that too sometimes, but I find that if I don’t take the time to integrate all the elements *as* I’m writing them, they’re never as organic.

    @Greg: Great example! The more ways we can think of for our characters to interact uniquely with the setting, the more vibrant our scenes will be.

  7. I enjoy providing setting details in scenes, the goal being to make the place as real for the reader as it is for me. I do worry about balancing on the knife-edge between too little and too much. An editor might mark those fleshed out settings as excessive fat, and each editor seems to live in a different parallel universe when it comes to deciding what is lean and what is fat.

  8. it’s a strange balance between giving too much setting and giving too little.

  9. I enjoy creating settings, and realize that I tend to balance their descriptions by having some details spelled out in the narrative, and others visualized through the characters’ eyes. Sometimes I even do a little of both within the same scene.

  10. @Michelle: Fiction is made up of so many parts that every aspect of it ends up being a balancing act to one extent or another.

    @Abby: Mixing things up is always a good idea. Variety spices the reader’s interest and keeps the flow of the words from becoming monotonous.

  11. I struggle with this. Trying to keep up with the character, the scene, and add a few—if not all—of the five senses is a tough job!

  12. Great article. I know this is something I struggle with. It is easy for me to write dialogue and harder to write settings. I’m going to be coming up the revisions in my books fairly soon; I definitely need to remember this!

  13. @Lorna: This is another reason why I like outlining so much. If I’ve sorted my story ahead of time, I can concentrate on the nitty-gritty of constructing the scenes as I’m actually writing.

    @Sarah: A good exercise is to let yourself go wild with setting descriptions in the first draft. Write lengthy descriptions every time you enter a new setting and stick in action beats with the characters interacting with the setting at every chance you get. Then go back and trim it down to a good balance.

  14. As you’ve suggested, sometimes I forget readers can’t read my mind! Although I sometimes discover the holes during revision, I also prompt beta readers to let me know if they encounter blah scenes that need more detail.

  15. thanks …that’s a big help! I can already think of a few places where I’ll need to give more detail or it won’t make sense to the reader:( thanks again.

  16. @Carol: Prompting beta readers is often a very helpful practice. Sometimes people don’t know what to look for unless we point them in the right direction.

    @Lorna: Glad the post was helpful. Happy fleshing out!

  17. Since I generally write westerns, I do a combination fictional/real setting. Most of my towns and landscapes are based on real-life ones, but they’re tweaked to fit my specifications for the story.
    I’d say more, but I’m pressed for time atm..

    Thnx for another great article.

  18. That’s what I did in my western as well. I like the verisimilitude of real-life settings combined with the flexibility of made-up settings.

  19. I think I’m guilty here, i tend to write in a bit outlinish way, forgetting about the setting. But Katie is always on her guard to point out the blind spot :)))

  20. I would be guilty of this mistake far more often if I didn’t believe in thorough editing. When I write dialogue, my tendency is to let the characters have at it and not worry about setting or actions or anything else. Then I go back and paint in the details–often chopping away a good chunk of the dialogue in the process, because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.

  21. Not being an artist in any other medium, I can’t say this definitively, but I think writing is much more complicated in its sum of total parts than many other artforms. There is so much that a writer has to keep in order in his mind at any given time. We’re all juggling half a dozen blind spots every time we sit down at the computer.

  22. @Kern: It’s impossible to remember all the necessary details in a scene (much less get them all right) the first time around. We’d all be in big trouble without the opportunity to edit!

  23. I’m usually guilty of this kind of setting-less dialogue writing. It’s a one thing I always need to fix during first round of edits.

  24. Sometimes dialogue spills out so fast that it’s all we can do to transcribe it before we lose it. In instances like those, I always let the setting slide and go back to insert it in a second pass. But, when possible, I find it easier all the way around if I can incorporate it in the first draft.

  25. One comment that keeps coming up in my creative writing class is that we want more descriptions. We want to see each of the characters and where they are. I’m particularly guilty of not including enough sensual details, so that’s something that I have to work on more in my stories. Thanks for these tips!

  26. We hear so often that descriptions bore readers that I think we can knee-jerk in the opposite direction and leave the descriptions out altogether. But readers deplore the lack of a good description as much as the over-bombardment of a bad one.

  27. this is something i need to work on – dialogue – i can write all day, setting – i can write all day – but melting them together in perfect harmony – not so good. thanks for the example – it was great and helpful.

  28. Good stuff. I recently was told that my novel does need to have the house where my MC lives spruced up. I’ve always had a weak spot for description, and I thought it had gotten better for a while, but I suppose not…

    As if I needed anymore bloat to my story… 😉

  29. @Ainsley: It’s much more intuitive for us to write one format or the other. Melding them is where it gets tricky, but we need to learn to do it successfully, because that’s really what separates the woman from the girls, as they say!

    @Liberty: Having someone tell us where the story is lacking description is always helpful. We all need readers who are so precise.

  30. I want to say thank you.

    I didn’t really think about that and there have been times I held back from describing what two characters where doing as they talked, because I was worried it would distract from the dialogue. After reading this and thinking about it- that was really silly of me. Your right. I have such a vivid idea of what everything looks like that I tend to gloss over describing it. Just because I can clearly see what they are doing doesn’t mean the readers can. I really need to keep that in mind better as I am attempting to write my first novel. I have written lots of stories, but I am currently trying to actually finish something and end with the results of something I want to share. Crossing my fingers.

    Also after reading those two examples; of course it doesn’t distract from the dialogue. It makes all the difference. It brings everything alive for the reader. I am glad I stumble across your blog and I will have to take a glance at your archive. ^_^

    ~Nekodra

  31. Thanks for stopping by! Writers get the “rules” (one of which is “don’t over-describe”) harped at them so much that it’s easy to over-compensate on any number of them. This is one that gets most of us sooner or later.

  32. So true.
    In a lot of cases, I tend to get so caught up in my dialogue in the first draft, dying to find out where my characters will end up… that I neglect to mention a lot of the scenery. And actually, it’s almost a chore sometimes about settings and scenery. But it’s one of the things I’ve trying to work in my latest drafts.
    That and working to make sure my characters are better defined, especially in their dialogue (that’s another common thing: everyone sounding the same)

  33. Sometimes dialogue can come to me so fast that I have to race just to get it all down while I can still remember it. In instances like those, I generally ignore action beats and description altogether. When I read back through what I’ve written, then I’ll flesh it out.

  34. Thanks for the great post. Finally made me realize why some of my chapters felt so incomplete! In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: “D’oh!”

  35. Glad it was helpful. Happy rewriting!

  36. This post has been very helpful indeed. Setting scenes is one area I intend to focus on this year, so reading your examples has made me so much more aware of what I need to do.

  37. Setting can often be the forgotten stepchild in fiction. We get so focused on the “necessities” of character and plot that we consider setting a foregone conclusion, when it isn’t really, not for our readers.

  38. Wish I’d found this earlier. Thank you, signed up for your freebie and bookmarked this site.

    Julia

  39. Glad you stopped by!

  40. (Lotta comments…)

    I find that you also have to be careful the setting doesn’t compete with the action. Your examples are probably too short to show this effectively, but description does have to step back sometimes to let the dialogue or action proceed at a good pace.

  41. One hundred percent agree. As I said in the post, my examples are constrained my the blog medium. If one was to describe the setting in every line, the result would be just as deleterious (if not more so) as if the setting were ignored.

  42. I got SO MUCH from this article. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
    Also, I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers. So hopefully more people can benefit from it as well. 🙂
    http://the-beginning-writer.blogspot.com/2012/03/fridays-link-roundup.html

  43. Thanks so much for sharing the link! I appreciate that very much. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article!

  44. I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I ran into this ‘vanishing setting’ in my WIP this last week. Your post was very helpful. I had to beef up a couple of sections to clarify where the characters were. I need to remember to describe a scene for all of the people NOT living in my head! Like Kelly, I also linked this article on my blog to help spread your awesome tips.

    http://nickieanderson.blogspot.com/2012/06/where-am-i.html

  45. Thanks so much for the sharing the link! Loved your post and left you a comment.

  46. i can see why there’s so many comments on this one!

    i’d read it couple of days ago, really liked it, closed the tab, and then was bugged til i found it again

    the comparison before and after sample is one of the clearest most effective i’ve ever come across, beyond nicely done 😉 thank you much!

  47. Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve run across this particular mistake in countless unpublished manuscripts. It’s a killer, IMO. But, fortunately, it’s relatively easy to fix once you know how to spot it.

  48. Interesting read. I don’t know yet if I’m writing enough bits of setting in between the dialogues, but do I try to drop a chair or a bear every couple of lines. I’d have to actually check it with this specifically in mind.

    (Not literally dropping a bear, mind you, that would be quite painful)

  49. Using bears interchangeably with furniture, huh? Piques my interest!

  50. what a nice post and story! now I wanna read more about this discussion!

  51. Oh Barf. Double knuckle sandwich to the forehead. I think this is my greatest weakness. Not just establishing a setting, but also in my descriptions of settings. By intent I’m a minimalist; as with anything, however, we can go to extremes without even realising it.
    This is a fine reminder, Katie. Now to go back and re-revise the first 9 chapters of the WIP.
    May I suggest as a future topic – ?
    Theme.

  52. Thanks for this recommendation. I’ll have to do this with my next draft. I get caught up trying to record the dialogue (before it slips my mind) that I tend to skim over the setting stuff when drafting out my stories. And since they are in their own world, that makes it all the more confusing to those outside my mind.

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