The Space Coast Authors of Romance (STAR) is about to open their contest. The LAS (Launch a Star) contest is one of the best, providing each finalist with a chance to be seen by both an editor and an agent. The success rate of those writers selling is very high. Judges for the contest are trained and each year, judging rules are reviewed. As a member of the committee, I was asked to give a brief talk on judging the Setting of a submission and thought I’d let our readers take a look at what I’ve come up with, so they can add to it. A Fuzzie review, as it were…

One of the first tasks a writer needs to accomplish is to draw a reader into her story. A reader wants to know who, what, when, and last, but certainly not the least, where. A compelling setting enhances a story, and, in some novels, like those of Karen White, Patti Callahan Henry, Anne Siddons and other writers of the South, setting almost becomes a character in the book.

Each scene should begin by giving the reader a sense of time and place. In literary works, many paragraphs may describe the setting. In other genres, it may take just a sentence or two to give the reader the who, what, when, and where. In all cases, it is important that the five senses flow throughout.

“She sat in the classroom, where they were to meet after the last student had left for home.”
Those two sentences are pretty sterile. Compare them to this, where setting is introduced.
“The last student left her class room at Avondale Middle School, murmuring a hurried good bye as he raced to catch the four o’clock bus. Josie Kingman shuffled the spelling papers on her desk and rubbed her hands together in an attempt to heat her cold hands. Jake Whitcomb, the handsome new principal, was to meet her there in less than a minute. “
Obviously, those sentences were done in a hurry but you get the point. The setting adds tension to the scene and the reader has a better idea of who, what, when, where. If it were important to the story, the writer could go on and describe the sights inside the room or what she sees through the window, the smells, etc.

The setting should enhance the story, not slow it down. If the description doesn’t add anything meaningful, the words are wasted and the pacing is slowed.

Be aware of too much setting, as well as too little, and enjoy creating spaces that invite the reader in.

Have anything to add? How do you react to setting in the stories you read?

16 comments

  1. Autumn Jordon // June 30, 2009 at 9:03 AM  

    Placing the reader in the scene immediaitely was one of my first lessons. But reading a info dump of setting description actually puts me to sleep. Like you I try to use the sprinkle effect. A little bit of setting, a little bit of character, a little bit of dialogue and you get an easy read and feel drawn in. Great Lesson!

    Autumn
    2009 Golden Heart Finalist
    www.autumnjordon.com

  2. Leigh Duncan // June 30, 2009 at 9:07 AM  

    You're absolutely right, Judy. Setting is a key element in any story. In many ways, it influences the motivations and actions of our characters. Who hasn't watched a soap opera where the h&h are stranded in a snow storm and have to 'snuggle' to stay warm. Nine months later(or 2 in soap opera time), voila! Another new character makes an appearance. But where would those stories be without the snow and the ice and the cold? In my stories, the setting is nearly a character in its own right.

  3. Mary Marvella // June 30, 2009 at 10:16 AM  

    Judy, you are so right. I always go back to see if I have let my reader know where we are. Often I haven't!

    Good post!

  4. Nightingale // June 30, 2009 at 10:22 AM  

    As a reader, setting is very important to me. I love Pat Conroy, and as you said about other Southern writers, his setting becomes a character in the novel. In my books, setting is always a key factor though not necessarily a character. Black Swan, my spicy vampire story, is set in an English manor house. Thumbs up, Judy.

  5. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 10:24 AM  

    Thanks, Autumn, appreciate your comments. And good luck with your Golden Heart entry. What an honor!

  6. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 10:25 AM  

    Leigh, love your example of a setting put to good use in plotting. Had to chuckle about it. Can't wait to read your stories...

  7. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 10:26 AM  

    Mary, yes, sometimes I get so caught up in the action, I have to remind myself to let the reader in on where they are, what they are seeing, what odors may abound, etc. Thanks...

  8. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

    Linda, vampires? English manor house? Sounds good to me...and lots to describe... Good luck with it!

  9. Edie Ramer // June 30, 2009 at 11:54 AM  

    As early as possible in a scene, I mention place. I don't do a lot of description, but it's important to root the characters. Otherwise they're talking heads, which I hate.

  10. Barbara Monajem // June 30, 2009 at 12:57 PM  

    I find it way too easy to forget to write about setting, because in my imagination it's perfectly clear!!
    I almost always have to layer it in afterward. Thanks for the reminder, Judy.

    Another two writers in whose work setting is almost a character are Alaska mystery writers Dana Stabenow and John Straley.

  11. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 1:37 PM  

    Thanks, Edie. Yes, I like to be "right there" in any scene...and setting will do it. It doesn't have to be a lot of words, just enough to place you...

  12. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 1:38 PM  

    Hi, Barbara! I think we all forget at times to write a few words of setting when WE know where we are!! LOL

  13. Mona Risk // June 30, 2009 at 4:15 PM  

    Great post, Judy. Setting the scene. I also learned that we have to vary the setting in order not to bore the reader and do it very subtly.

  14. Judy // June 30, 2009 at 4:28 PM  

    Great reminder, Mona. None of us want to stay in the same place too long. Even if the addition of details are added, it seems a little different, more interesting, don't you think?

  15. Pamela Varnado // July 1, 2009 at 11:42 AM  

    Judy,
    You're right. Too much setting slows down the pacing. That's one of the lessons I learned early on in my writing career. I'd have paragraphs where I described everything in the room, and yes, once I even described the kitchen sink.

  16. Scarlet Pumpernickel // July 1, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

    Judy, interesting topic. I'm sure your introduction to setting will be a great help when you present it. I love exploring new and different places through reading. It doesn't take a lot of info, just a little and my imagination will do the rest! So, I guess that's my tip. Give the reader just enough info for their imagination to work with and it will paint the pictures for you!

    Scarlet