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:

glasses-icon.jpg

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! 

Copyright Info (final)

17 responses

  1. SO GLAD YOU ARE BACK!

    I feel like I went on break during the school year and came back and everything just fell into place with the article you wrote today. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to gain so much insightful information from your blog.

    You do a great service for all of us good sir. I hope you continue to keep it up! I also hope you and your family are well.

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s awesome to know these posts are of use to you, SDS. I’ve been looking forward to October on your page and now I’m missing all the good posts! I’ll have to spend a few days catching up. Did you already move, or are you still prepping? Either way, I hope you are doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We just got fully moved in last Sunday and I’m loving the new place! ^_^

        Thank you so much. Oh and the posts will still be there. To be honest the series of poems I’ve been writing for October have been severely draining. I’m actually at the point I’m trying to survive through it. I have to write it but at the same time I feel like my soul is in a vice is the best way I can describe it.

        I hope you are well also my friend. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome back and with another great article to boot! I never knew that there was so much theory behind building a chapter, I sort of just winged it, not that I did a bad job (I think). Constant 1 is the best shred of advice I’ve gotten in a while, there comes a time were I run out of physical environmental details to describe and I get lost, but you had the answer in that one paragraph!

    Keep up the hard, sincere, and meaningful work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s motivating to know you found some useful nuggets in my rantings. As I start rounding out information in different topics I plan to compile notes into larger tools. While there are still a few posts to be generated for setting, those are the main elements I look at.

      I hope your projects are going well and everything is good with you. Thanks for stopping in and leaving some thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The most important thing is you’re back and things look okay for your area. We’ve missed you, and we’re glad you’re back.

    This is a nice chapter checklist when I think of it diagnostically. Is the reader anchored in the scene. Does the reader know who’s eyes he’s looking from? Am I relying too much on exposition?

    If any writer asks himself these questions after reading a chapter, he’s going to have a solid story when it’s all said and done.

    Welcome home, my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad to be home. I certainly feel lucky to have had a comfortable place to evacuate to, but being back in the comfort of my home makes a world of difference. Thanks for the warm welcome back.

      I’m trying to merge some of the concepts I’ve covered into more intuitive and powerful editing tools and sources of information. I know as I apply edits that much of this sort of happens instinctively, but there was a time I where I would stop, search through a few books, and make a more robust suggestion. My hope is that by compiling information people will have the tools to be more instinctive and analytical (less emotional) when they self-edit their work. Thanks for stopping in today and reading, Matt.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent checklist! That last constant–sensory details–remains my chief nemesis. My first draft looks something like a screenplay, so I have to go back and add this stuff.

    I need to remind myself, over and over, that my character is seeing, smelling, hearing, touching and tasting things. That he will react to them for good or ill, and that certain sensory details can move the plot or anchor the reader in a particular way. (A character can link a certain recurring smell to imminent danger, for example.)

    Thanks for this article–great to have you back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also tend to forget sensory details, then when I remember one, it’s the only one. Chapters of my book begin to morph into explorations into the sense (singular).

      Follow Drake in Chapter 2 while he discusses the many interesting smells in the wasteland.

      Ever wonder what a nuclear winter sounds like when you are sleeping in dam on a river? Drake Nelson doesn’t have to because he’s heard it all in Chapter 17.

      And so on…

      Like you also mentioned, I really enjoy sensory driven plot devices. Those little cues that reward the reader for paying attention, they always do it for me. Especially when it’s something the reader knows that the characters in the book wouldn’t (dramatic irony). Bad guy #2 always chews cinnamon gum, and good guy #3 just met a guy in a diner whose breath reeks like it. Good guy #3 is clueless about the gum and I’m over here going, “Dude! That’s bad guy #2!”

      Thanks for swinging by and reading and for the kind words. I’m happy to be back!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Linkage | 10.15.16 – Rucker | Writer

  6. Great post, as usual! I really like Constant 3. Stories are more engaging when the conflicts vary by type (man vs man, man vs nature, etc), and building a setting that acts as another source of hardship gives characters an opportunity to show what they’re made of.

    This goes back to the idea that story elements, such as settings, should serve more than one purpose in order to fully engage the reader. A setting isn’t merely an environment—it could be a symbol or metaphor or a launching pad for a plot twist. I read an article once on Harry Potter and how the settings in the books were essentially living, breathing characters. You could imagine, in vivid detail, the personalities of the Forbidden Forest or Hogsmeade.

    I’ll use the Steps and think more critically about shifts in perspectives for the current short story I’m working on. It’s good to hear that sometimes it only takes a few well-chosen words to heighten the reader’s understanding of the setting. There’s no need to bloat the story with needless detail.

    Thanks for the great insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found some use in my ramblings, Millie. I try to emphasize with writers I work with that many of these changes are slight revisions. The power of a few well-chosen words, like you mentioned, really can alter a persons perception of an entire passage.

      I’d be interested to read the Harry Potter article you mentioned. It’s right on. Rowling did an amazing job of breathing life into those settings. She also blended magic and fantasy with our world. I think this blend is appealing to readers because it makes those settings very accessible. Anyone with an imagination can walk around and find parallels to this fantastical world all around them.

      I appreciate you stopping in, giving this post a read, and leaving some thoughts. I’ll see if I can’t flush out the article you read utilizing the Google gods.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome, Corey! If I’m not commenting, I’m lurking. 🙂

        Here’s the article: https://www.pottermore.com/features/behind-the-scenes-the-forbidden-forest

        It’s just one line about how the Forbidden Forest is “a character in itself”, but it sparked a lot of my thoughts around writing better settings. I liked what they said about the forest being “an exaggeration of [the] truth”, and how the forest was difficult to understand completely. I liked this description, and thought it could also be used to describe how we think about characters, who may also be exaggerated, with lots of unexplored depth. You can see how the Forbidden Forest changed to heighten various narrative elements.

        Hope you enjoy the read!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for taking the time to share this article. Wow…there is a lot here I didn’t know about the set and the reasons behind it.

        “It was based on truth, but it was an exaggeration of truth, so the tree forms, the root forms, and even Aragog and the Acromantula in their lair were very real but their size was hugely exaggerated.”

        This is really interesting. I love how they thoughtfully adapted each of the elements for a united purpose. I also never would have guessed the set was a complete studio creation.

        As for the “lurking,” I’m right there with you. I try to comment when I can, but it seems if we are doing this writing thing correctly our time is very limited.

        Liked by 1 person

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