Writing Active Setting (PNWA 2015 session round-up)


(I’ll be doing a series of posts with the highlights of what I learned from various sessions at the 2015 PNWA Conference. This is the first!)

The very first session I attended was “Writing Active Setting,” presented by Mary Buckham. She said many writers have one of two issues with setting in their story:

  1. They have none, so the reader is lost; or
  2. They have too much, and it stops the flow of the story.

“Active setting,” then, is using your description of setting to do double or even triple duty—not just to describe time and place, but also to show character, emotion, or backstory; to evoke emotion; or to orient the reader. (I don’t want to steal all her thunder; she has a series of short books that might soon become one longer book about active setting: http://marybuckham.com/writing-craft/.) Know when readers accept having more setting and utilize that (at the beginning of the story, scene or chapter).

Mary has a great, dry sense of humor, and her workshop was packed with great examples. Here are a few:

  • Do you say, “It was dark. She was scared about meeting the vampires,” or “The grapevines along the side of the road hung like dead men on their trellises”? (I might not be remembering the exact words, because in my notes I only jotted down phrases, but I think you get the intent.)
  • Do you say, “They drove as quickly as traffic would allow” or “Blasting north on the 101”? (The latter gives you insight into the driver’s character, orients you in space, and gives you the hint that we’re on a big freeway — even if you’re not from California, you know that something called just “the 101” is probably not a country back road.)
  • Evoke your character’s mood: “bruise-colored clouds trudging” vs. “cotton clouds waltzing”.
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