As I mentioned in my last post, reading others’ works-in-progress made me ask the writers questions about setting during character conversations. Other common questions were: “What are they doing?” and “When is this happening?”
The fix for the first? Add character actions during dialogue. There are two types.
People are rarely totally still. We scratch an itch. Shift in a chair. Cross or uncross our legs. Bump against the counter when handwashing dishes. (I often get water on my clothes when I do so.) It’s allergy season at our house, which means there’s sneezing, throat clearing, and occasional coughs. These are mostly involuntary or unplanned actions. They can be great tools to:
…sneak in what a character is wearing. E.g. She sneezed into the sleeve of her faux fur coat. He scratched his knee through the hole in his ragged jeans. The girl tripped over her untied shoelace.
…show someone’s discomfort with the conversation. E.g. Matt cleared his throat and hoped his wife would get the hint to change the topic. Theresa flinched. The boy let out an exclamation of disgust.
…show a character’s interest. E.g. He inched closer. She rested a hand on his arm. They drew in their breaths in unison.
What is your character choosing to do? Be specific about it. If she’s drinking a cup of tea, it’s not just any tea, but a British blend with milk. He’s doing handwork. What kind? Knitting, crochet? My husband’s grandmother showed him how to do tatting, although he didn’t keep it up. Instead he’s more into woodworking. And lately bread making. The child is playing. Playing what? Pretending to be a police officer, or a cowboy riding the range? These specific details of what the character is actually doing while he talks will help ground the reader.
Conversations often take place during mealtimes. It really annoys me when characters on a TV show receive some great food, but never get to take a bite. If your characters are having a conversation during a meal, by the time it is done we should have some idea that they have eaten. For example: Jane swallowed her mouthful of orange soda before answering. Ben lathered butter onto his wheat roll. Cassie took the last bite of rare steak and angled her knife and fork across the paper plate.
Include character reactions to others (including animals). Our youngest daughter used to communicate that she was bored with a parental explanation by twisting her hair. A woman came to my door to deliver a package and backed off when my friendly dog appeared. When we are out somewhere, my husband often can tell I’ve seen a baby by the look on my face. Someone hard of hearing may ask others to repeat. Or sometimes we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re involved with, we don’t hear someone speak.
Action can also provide subtext. Another benefit is that action can show the lie to the words said. It can carry on a separate conversation from the dialogue. It can illustrate what’s really going on in the character’s mind. Look at this movie example, No. 3 from Sense and Sensibility: https://screenwritingmagazine.com/2018/04/03/top-10-examples-killer-subtext-movies/
I love what Becca Puglisi says, “Nonverbal vehicles are like annoying little brothers and sisters, tattling on the dialogue and revealing true emotion.” Her whole article is great—read it here: https://jerryjenkins.com/subtext-examples/
The fix for the second? Don’t neglect time. Is it midday or midnight? Let the reader know. A scene from the middle of the day moved to the middle of the night might have an intimacy that two o’clock in the afternoon wouldn’t. Is he eating a cookie at seven am? That’s probably more unexpected than dessert after dinner. A ramshackle abandoned cottage looks very different in bright sunshine than at dusk. Spring or fall? It could be humid during one season and cold during another—both will affect your characters.
Sometimes, all that is needed is a simple transition. E.g. Later that afternoon… After breakfast… Nothing happened until two weeks later. An actual clock or calendar can be used. E.g. Kasee checked the time. 10 pm. Where was he? – Sean opened his journal. Friday, May 1st.
Editor Beth Hill says, “References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction.” I like how she says setting props can help indicate seasons. Plastic Easter eggs scattered on the lawn is very different look from the rotting pumpkin left on the front stoop. Read more of her article here: https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/04/07/marking-time-with-the-viewpoint-character/.
I’ve found it helpful to create a written timeline as a guide for stories. I enter scenes and indicate when, where, what, and who. It helps me not have two Wednesdays or a six-day week. When a character refers back to “last Thursday,” I can check and make sure that really was the day the scene happened.
Help your reader keep track of when your characters are and what they are doing and your stories will feel more real.
I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.