Setting: Anchoring the Reader

Sleeping_Beauty_by_Harbour.jpgWe all like to think whoever picks up our book isn’t going to put it down. Our hope is they sit there in a vegetative state absorbing the words, until like a kiss from a prince/princess, the words, The End, release them from the spell.

Unfortunately, readers need food, water, bathroom breaks, and sleep. Sleep is the tricky one. If they grab a snack, take a tinkle, or get some water, then they come right back to the book. But sleep, well, sleep ruins everything.

I know if I’m reading before bed, I try my best to make it to the end of the chapter. Even if it’s not bedtime, I try to make it to the end of the chapter before I put the book down. The reason is somewhat obvious; I don’t want to start reading in the middle of scene. If that happens, then we may have to slip back a page or two to catch myself back up.

This is an important concept to grasp when you are writing your book.

anchorUsing setting cues at the beginning of a chapter quickly reorients the wayward reader who has ventured back into your world. It doesn’t take paragraphs to accomplish, but some brief setting details (time of day, location, characters present, visceral elements) will cement the reader back into the story.

Anchoring your reader will also increase the pacing of your book.

When I am writing my first draft, I tend to pace quickly.  When I can, I end the chapter with action and start the next one continuing it. One mistake I’ve made is not orienting the reader when I dive into the next chapter. Ending with action is fine. Starting with action is also fine. But if you don’t clue the sleepy-eyed reader into what the action was at the beginning of the chapter, suddenly it’s very confusing.

The Lost Woman.jpgI liken this issue to the writing process. As writers, we have to get our bearings when we sit back down to conjure up our stories. You open up your manuscript, and heck, you may have left off in the middle of a piece of dialogue. So you do what we all do, you scroll up a bit and read to get back into the scene.

Our reader shouldn’t have to do that. If your reader has to flip back a page every time they reopen the book, this is going to be a problem for them (assuming they are stopping at chapter markers or at the conclusion of scenes). Some readers may not realize exactly what the problem is, but in reviews you will see words like pacing, flow, and disorienting.

There are some tools out there you can use to keep your readers engaged. I wrote a post a while back about stitching transitions into setting here. That post focused more on showing passages of time and changing locations within chapters. Some of those concepts spill over.

writers guide to active setting.jpgHowever, in regards to adding setting information into chapter openings, I have found a decent resource. Mary Buckham’s book, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, is one of the best books I have found talking about setting. An entire chapter is dedicated to anchoring the reader in scenes and chapters.

Buckham reinforces the idea I am talking about by saying a, “…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” (p. 151).

Two of the best solutions I have seen are the macro (far away) and micro (up close) approach. There are a bunch of fancy ways of saying this, but breaking it down into mirco and macro seems to be the easiest way to condense the concepts.

fantasy landscape (macro).jpgThe macro approach is to pull back and anchor the reader with a couple pieces of description. Using an omniscient point of view, you approach the beginning of the chapter like a panorama.  n as little as a sentence or two, you can quickly use this method to orient the reader as to who is present, what is around them, what they are doing, and what the time of day is.

fantasy landscape (micro).jpgThe micro approach pulls the reader in closer and offers the above perspective from the POV of the character(s) present in the chapter. For you folks who are writing in 1st person, this is pretty much your only solution. If you have a host of characters you are juggling, it is essential to orient the reader as to who is present; the micro approach solves this problem as well.

It should be noted that it’s not a set-in-stone rule that you should anchor the reader at the beginning of each and every chapter. Some writing styles and genres need to keep the reader guessing and on their toes. However, this decision to not anchor is typically a conscious decision by the writer, not just happenstance.


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55 responses

    • Thanks for stopping and reading today. I really like the book (there aren’t a ton of books on setting I have enjoyed). It’s a fun book to read and it’s absolutely packed to the gills with examples from works of fiction to drive points home. It also offers examples in stages. Showing how concepts evolve from first draft to the later stages of writing.

      I don’t really “rate” books, but I did notice this one has a pretty decent rating on GoodReads when I linked it into the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping in and reading.

      I struggle with it too. That and description are two things I really focus on during rewrites. I think it’s the switch from writing mode into editing mode that makes those issues more apparent. Good luck!


  1. Reading your posts is like discovering a treasure trove. There is always something valuable to learn and a new angle to be fascinated by. Thank you for all the wisdom you share. And the creative and entertaining manner of your writing makes for interesting reading. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • It thrills me to know you are finding some use in my ramblings. As a writer, I am just trying to figure all of these concepts out. Taking it from the books and my head and writing it down seems to help solidify the information and organize it for me. But knowing you and others are finding it useful is very rewarding. Thank you so much for the kind words and for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful advice! ^_^ I’m pretty sure you give the best advice I’ve seen in just about anywhere as of yet. I love reading your blog. It is so informative and I look forward to the newest post each day!

    Amazing work!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Useful ideas. I certainly need to freshen (and tighten) my techniques if I intend to continue with this game, and I’m not sure I’ve ever given sufficient attention to anchoring… yet I know it bothers me in other people’s works. Good for for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found some use in my rantings. It’s always interesting to me how we notice issues in books, but end up replicating them in our own writing. It’s even sadder when you consider my work as an editor – yet I fall into the same traps when I write.

      The takeaway, and what I’ve found helps, is to not stress most of these details while you are writing your first-draft. Take the rule book and toss into the fire. Use the flames to fuel your creativity. Then, after you’re done and you’ve let the pages linger around for six weeks or so, buy a new rule book (or use pyromancy to resurrect the old one) and apply the rules and techniques during your self editing/rewriting stages.

      In this way, the analytical part of your mind doesn’t throw a monkey wrench into your creativity. That’s just my two cent approach to it. Thanks again for reading and leaving some thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I never thought of this! What a good thing to keep in mind, although I’d say not do this too much. I can’t remember what book, but the author kept repeating basic plot points over and over and over. It got a bit tedious.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great advice! When I end a chapter, I always try to make it simple for the reader to pick up at the next place. I usually end my chapters on a cliffhanger or at least a spot that makes the reader want to keep on going. If the chapter ended in an exciting way, I hope my readers will remember.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a method I enjoy using as well. I just have to be sure I take a chapter every now and then to let the reader take a breath. It’s something I will have to surely address in rewrites (I’ve added it to the growing list of things to sort out in revision…which seems to grow daily).

      Thanks for swinging in today! Glad to see you have a new post up, I will swing by and read it more thoroughly today.


  6. Some wonderful thoughts here … Though I like the first person POV in a shorter work for the reason you mentioned, I shy away from reading novels written in the first person. There are exceptions, but in most cases other characters don’t feel especially convincing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ironically, I tend to agree with you on having some issues sinking into first person books that are longer in nature. It’s only ironic because, naturally, I decided to write my novel in first person.

      With that being said, I’ve really tried to take advantage of a lot of tools to round out descriptions and provide readers information in creative ways. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing first person books that worked for me and tried to break down why they worked. We’ll see if it pays off. You never know until you give it a good try. With that being said, I’m looking forward to writing in something OTHER than first now.

      Thanks for leaving some thoughts and reading today, I appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This helps fill one of the major holes in my game. Thanks for the post. Description is always something I struggle with. I think I posted my process in a previous comment, but anchors in chapters are important as well. There’s a tiny distinction between description and setting. You can’t establish one with out the other, but I tend to be more fixated on character than setting when I’m describing things. I go through the early drafts and realize my well described characters might as well be talking in a white room. My editor told me, “readers demand more” when talking about setting. The best of us tie it all together in a way that flows naturally. Honestly, I’m still working on that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know I’m the same way given we work closely together on projects. Description is something I will have to enhance during rewrites. In your work you do a pretty solid job of anchoring characters early on in the chapter. As we’ve been working together on your final revisions of Caught – it seems you have the process down better than you admit (because you’re a humble guy).

      I like to think of setting being separate from description just to ensure it’s being addressed in the writing. While setting is obviously dependent on description, you can have a whole opening page of beautiful description, but still not have set the scene. I like to think of setting as directed description focused specifically on time and place. The nice thing about setting is it can be addressed in rewrites often with the addition of a single sentence or two. Perhaps that’s not the best way of doing it, but it works for me. As you know, I’m always adapting the way I think about writing.

      Thanks for taking time from your vacation to read and check in.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This makes perfect sense! It’s almost like when you turn Skyrim on for the first time in a month and you stare blankly at the screen thinking…what was I doing here? I am definitely going to check out “A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have left me no choice. Now I must stop being productive and go hack the wings off of some dragons…

      That’s a great way of looking at it though. Thanks for sharing the idea and for reading today. The book is a solid resource if you do snag it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting topic. I’ve book in writing is from seven different view points and I put the name of the character just below the chapter number. Characters are in distinct locations, so I wonder whether the character names themselves actually serve as anchorage. It’s not something I’ve actively thought about before; perhaps I’ll have a read through my chapter openings and see whether I’ve subconsciously done this

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think adding the character name under the chapter header will assist the reader for sure. But also keep in mind the amount of time that passes between chapters. What I mean is, does the reader have to go through six chapters before they touch bases with a character? If this is the case, anchoring the reader in setting is going to be absolutely vital to reorient them.

      Like you said, you likely have subconsciously done this. Most writers seem to start the chapter by talking about the who, what, where, and when. Every now and then it gets away.

      Good luck with your project. Rotating seven characters is very ambitious, but if done well it can be very rewarding.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chapters tend to dot backwards and forwards between two or three characters (for example, characters in the North), then the focus switches and several others (South) are followed for a while. I’ll have a look through to ensure that I’ve added ample anchoring, particularly where the switch between regions happens

        Liked by 1 person

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  22. Corey,

    Digging the anchor analogy. We all need a re-set in life sometimes and as a author, I need to give the reader a re-set. Just one more thing to think about on the path to world domination.

    Why is it anytime I read something you write that I am reminded how far ahead of me, you are. Good for you! Don’t wait for turtles like me to catch up.



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