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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A Setting Writing Checklist

A Refined ListMost writers I work with tend to blend outlines and instinctive writing together.  There are exceptions.  Some are renegade mavericks who wander into the jungle with a machete and hack away a path.  Others spend months plotting all the paths, sub-paths, and hidden passageways before they type a word.

Regardless of the method, when the sky parts and heavenly light blasts down on the freshly minted manuscript, most writers are going to need to address descriptive setting elements.  The method I employ is starting at the chapter and working my way in toward the sentence.  

I’ve talked about setting before in the past.  We’ve hammered the following topics:


This image was created by Jess Tahbonemah and is the property of M.L.S. Weech.  Any use without his permission is prohibited. 

Let’s take a day and merge the concepts together into a step-by-step checklist. 

Step 1: Think big by addressing setting on the chapter level.  This is where the article I wrote on anchoring the reader might come in handy.  Make sure when the chapter opened you took a sentence or two to address when and where the character(s) are.  If you aren’t writing in 1st person, you might need to clue the reader into who is present.

There are methods you can employ which could preclude you from having to clue readers into who is present.  M.L.S. Weech, Robert Jordan, and many other authors utilize chapter icons.  These icons offer a visual cue to the reader as to who will be present in the chapter.  The glasses icon I added is one of Weech’s, and you can check out more of his Caught icons here.  While this method is a great tool, you’ll notice most authors who do this also anchor the reader in each chapter with their words.  It’s a double whammy! 

Smell the Napalm

Step 2: Isolate the character(s) in the chapter and determine from which POV the setting is being viewed from.  From what I’ve gathered, writers who pump out large, daily word counts struggle with this the most.  This is because they can sit down and write more than one chapter in a session.  Their mind latches onto a single way of thinking (POV), and despite the change in character, the setting description will bleed over.  This is perhaps the easiest way to bamboozle a reader. 

I can think of many times where I was reading a passage and assumed the description and setting information was coming from Character X.  It wasn’t until I got to a character name that I realized it was coming from Character Y.  It’s important to switch descriptive gears when we switch characters.  Mindful consistency is going to be key.  It is important to consider how the characters’ arcs will impact their view of their world at any given time.  Even the most optimistic character is going to look at a flower and want to stomp on it every now and then.

jetpack.jpgStep 3: Think scene by scene.  Within the chapter there can be multiple scenes.  These are typically indicated by a shift in place, action, or perspective.  The writer usually accomplishes this by pulling in or out with description.  Each one of these shifts is an opportunity to provide a couple sentences, or even a few words, to indicate setting and how the character perceives it.

Consider the article listed above about stitching transitions into setting.  This is especially useful when analyzing how your character moves scene to scene.  Your creations may walk, run, drive, jetpack, or teleport to different locations within the chapter.  Look to see if there will be value added by injecting setting details into those transitions.  

crystal ball.jpgStep 4: Go inside scenes and address paragraphs and sentences.  This is where the real work starts to happen.  This is also where self-study and understanding of your genre will come into play.  It’s the dreaded show versus tell, devil in the details tedium.  

As the writer, you likely have all the answers.  Try your best to think like the reader and look for areas where they will have questions.  These are some of the most common questions I ask writers: Where are they?  How did they get here?  What does this look like?  How does he/she feel about this?  

Be mindful of these “constants.”

Constant 1: Think about where you are in the book.  Setting information has a cumulative effect.  If you’ve done a solid job building up, setting can be less about “stuff” and more about how people view “stuff.”  In essence, setting can become more emotional and less physical.

Constant 2: Show versus tell is something that I tend to address at the scene level.  Again, I don’t advocate the use of one or the other universally.  The article I linked offers a tool to gauge intensity within a scene and this can help determine the amount of showing or telling you need to do.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s something to consider.

Types of Conflict

Constant 3: For areas of the book that are conflict driven, consider if the setting is running against the characters. More often than not, you want the setting to act as a barrier to character goals.  Sure, you can toss down a yellow brick road to help them find their way, but make sure it is loaded with poisonous flowers and wicked witches.

Constant 4: Look for those “ly” adverbs and decide whether they should live or die. I’m not in the business of adverb annihilation, but if the adverb is being used as a crutch where a few words of insightful information could have been added, it’s time to reappraise.

Constant 5: Make sure to inject sensory details throughout.  You can refer to the article I linked at the beginning for more info on this subject if you require it. 

question-markThat’s it for today!  I wanted to take a day to compile our examination of setting into a larger tool.  I hope you found some of this information useful.  For my own study, I’m curious about what elements of setting, if any, you struggle with.  In revision, is there a certain method you employ to address this?  Do you have a checklist of sorts?  I’d love to talk about it and advance my own knowledge.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp! 

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Writing: Subtext in Setting

Text Versus Subtext.jpgToday let’s tackle subtext in setting.  Subtext, when we rip away all the frills and look at it naked, is the unique theme or style hidden within your writing.  It’s the feeling and unspoken sentiments your words relay.  Whether you are tackling dialogue or narrative input, subtext is present.  This sub-textual feeling is often based on whichever character is offering this information.

Here’s a real world concept to help you visualize this idea.  When I was a Combat Cameraman in the Navy, I would attach with combat units and document their missions.  Many of those missions were nighttime raids to apprehend wanted men.  Because of the equipment I had been issued, and my training with it, I could collect visual intelligence in the dark – literally.  This is why I was useful.

Now that’s the background.  Let’s get to the point.


This photo was taken by Michael Watkins, who was stationed at Combat Camera with me.

During a mission the team would breach the door, flow into the building, secure the area, and sometimes someone would be there to apprehend, and sometimes it was what they call a, “dry-hole.” This meant it was empty.  Regardless, I would flow into the building at the rear of the assaulting team, provide backup, and as soon as the area was secured, my rifle would hang and my cameras would come up.  I would document anything and everything I could find that seemed relevant, and some things that were seemingly irrelevant.

After the mission was over and we got back to wherever we were staying, I used my portable workstation to compile photos and video into an After Action Report (AAR).  The next morning/night the team, and the local combatant commander (person in charge of all operations in the region) would assemble.  The team would provide a verbal AAR.  Each member of the team (which ranged from 6-12) would provide a rundown of what they saw, what they gathered, what went right, and what went wrong.

talking about the plan.jpgThis is where the idea of subtext in setting really comes into play.  While many of their recollections were similar, each one was different.  Each person focused on a different aspect of the mission.  The guy who specialized in breaching (knocking down doors, windows, and walls) would talk about how the breaching went, then his description from inside varied.  The team leader would talk about coordination, but his description from inside, again,  varied.  The intelligence guy would talk about artwork, posters, and murals he observed and what those meant – and so on.

Each one of their perspectives and descriptions of setting and events were limited by their own worldview.  While they all talked about the same thing, each one of their perspectives was different.  That’s important to realize.

play on video.pngThen I would push play on the video I compiled of the mission.  I always found it very interesting (rewarding) when my video offered them insights they missed.  I didn’t have tactical advice to offer, I didn’t specialize in breaching or tactics or the analysis of intelligence, I specialized in observation and collection.  I had been trained to collect everything and anything in a very small amount of time.  I didn’t speak, my video spoke for me.  In this way, I was almost a omniscient observer of setting (i.e. an unbiased viewpoint of the events).

This was real life.  And this also serves as a solid foundation for how we should approach writing setting from a characters point of view.  Let’s play with some made up narrative from a mission.  For the purpose of subtext in setting, let’s focus on the initial entry by an assault force.

*Forgive my sloppiness, I’m making up this next part as I go*

Team Leader Perspective

This site was like every site we deal with in the region.  Dirt walls about 8-feet high, and a sliding metal gate closing off entry to the two-story mud and brick building.  My guys were tucked up tight on the wall, stacked neatly chest to back, and safe from any potential threat.  I signaled for the breach and indicated a chain was barring our path.  The breacher rolled up, cut the chain with bolt cutters, and we flowed in.

eagle eye.jpgSubtext:  We have a viewpoint from the most experienced person on the team.  The information isn’t highly detailed, because in reality, he is looking at the situation like an eagle from above.  There is a feeling of confidence (i.e. this isn’t the first building like this, my guys were in a safe position, the stack was neat).

Breacher Perspective

We were stacked up against a clay and sand wall.  It would stop a bullet, but nothing more.  I had my shoulder tight against the man in front of me and was waiting for the Team Leader to give me the signal.  The Team Leader signaled for me and indicated a chain.  I didn’t expect a chain, but was prepared.  I pulled the bolt-cutters out of my breaching bag, moved quietly up to the gate, and gave the chain a once over.  The lock was pretty fancy for this area, not something a local would have access to.  I snapped the bolt cutters through the lock, slid the door open, and stepped back for the team to flow in.  As they passed by I pocketed the lock.

clear the way.jpgSubtext: This viewpoint is from someone with a specific job: defeat doors, walls, and other obstacles.  From his viewpoint, the wall suddenly isn’t so solid.  The locked chain is not something normal.  The lock is even more unique.  This viewpoint, offers additional insight. And a feeling that perhaps there is something more to this site.

The takeaway.  When offering your reader setting information, sometimes how something is described is more important than what is being described.  Also work to make setting descriptions as unique as the people offering them.  Much like the example I offered above, each fictional character is a unique person with a unique worldview.

Here are some solid resources:

That’s it for today.  Do you have any additional ideas or concepts you could share about subtext?  I would love to hear them.  I’m always looking to add tools to the ol’ toolbox.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Setting: Stitching in Transitions

transitions.jpgA challenge for some writers (me included) is learning how to weave transitions into your story.  You need to show a passage in time, a change in location, or even a shift in perspective, but you don’t want to screech the story to a halt to insert a paragraph showing this transition.  So what can you do?

Instead of doing an information dump to provide the transition, stitch those transitions together from the point of view of your characters.  Here is an example from, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, by Mary Buckham. This example comes from page 163 of her book.  She cited the passage as coming from the book, The Watchman, by Robert Crais.

active setting.jpg“They climbed up through the Sepulveda Pass, then down the San Fernando Valley.  From Cheviot Hills to Van Nuys they traveled.” (Buckham’s example of what it could have been)

Compared to…

“…They climbed up through the Supulveda Pass, then down the San Fernando Valley.  The valley was always much hotter, and Pike could feel the increasing heat even with the air-conditioning.  He watched the outside temperature rise on the dashboard thermometer.  From Cheviot Hills to Van Nuys, they gained fifteen degrees.”  (the authors version)

There is an obvious difference in length, but I would argue each word is doing work in the authors version.  More so, we are seeing it from Pike’s perspective.  I also noticed that I have no idea where any of these locations geographically are (more on that in a minute).  But I still glean a lot from from these three sentences.

This brings up two points.

exoplanet-571906_960_720First, transitions can help build the world and the character.  Each shift in setting, and time, is an opportunity to give your reader some valuable insights into the character and the world they live in.  A lot of fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, and paranormal (and the list goes on) writers take these transitions as an opportunity to reveal a little bit more about the worlds they have created.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  After all, those worlds are big and need explaining.  But it never hurts to show those worlds from the perspective of someone with boots on the ground.

You are solving two problems at once when you do this, providing context about the world, and offering insight into the characters as they navigate (transition through) it.  Yes, you can just open a chapter with a paragraph of narrative information, and yes, it can work.  Heck, sometimes you won’t have any other option.  If the option is available, give the information through the eyes and perspectives of your characters.

mount doom.jpgSecondly, when transitioning settings, focus on what drives the story I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, I couldn’t picture what Supulveda Pass and the San Fernando Valley looks like.  Does that matter?  As writers, we have to focus on the relevant.  A mountain is a mountain, unless that mountain is Mount Doom (Lord of the Rings reference – I’m a Tolkien fanboy).  Knowing what is vital to the story will allow you to decide what to focus on in your setting transitions.

That’s as far as I’m going to go today.  I know I have only scratched the surface with this posting. You can rest assured that as I uncover more useful information about settings, and transitioning through them, I will be sure to share it with you all.  After all, this blog is just as much for me, as it is for you.  It’s my very own wiki-page where I can catalog all the important bits and bobs I’m uncovering.  What makes it better is I get to share and collaborate with other people who love writing as much as I do.

Speaking of collaboration, do you have any tips for transitioning settings?  Or do you have an example/passage of work that did an exceptional job at it?  I would love to see and hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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