Friday, December 7, 2012

Mary Buckham on Active Setting

 LUCY BURDETTE: Today we are so lucky to have one of my favorite writing teachers visit Jungle Red. She'll answer your questions all day. And she's giving away a copy of her ebook WRITING ACTIVE SETTING. Take it away Mary!


MARY BUCKHAM:  Remember the last novel you read where you were so deep into the world of the story you didn’t want to leave it? Where you felt you could hear and taste and touch what the characters heard, tasted and touched? I call this Active Setting and something that some writers do so well and others, not so well.

What is Active Setting and how can it make a difference in our novels? 


Setting can add so much to your story world or it can add nothing. When creating Active Setting we’re looking to add subtext in our writing, a deeper way for your reader to experience your story. Instead of simply describing a place or thing for the sake of description, look closely at how to maximize what we are showing the reader.


    It’s amazing what Active Setting can do to enhance a story or, with the lack of it, flatline your novel.  Elements of Active Setting can include:


 *  Details that matter. Don’t focus your reader on something that isn’t pertinent to your story.  Setting should show characterization, or conflict, or emotion, or foreshadow, or be there for a reason, instead of simply to describe placement of objects in space


Our role as a writer is to create the world of our stories so that the reader not only sees it but experiences the details that matter.


As writers let your POV characters interact with the setting, move through it, pick things up and brush past them, etc. 


* Whenever there's an introduction of a setting that’s different for the POV character, or for the reader, spend a few words of description to orient  the reader, don’t make them guess where the characters are.  


Make your Settings matter and your whole novel can benefit.


     So what about you? What does Setting mean to you as you write?  As you read?  Feel free to comment and out of those who do comment one name will be drawn for a free Kindle copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING: Book 1 Characterization and Sensory Detail. 


For more information on the book it’s available now on Amazon for less than the cost of a latte, or Mary will be teaching a two-week course on WRITING ACTIVE SETTING in February.



Mary Buckham is an award-winning fiction writer,  author of the recently released WRITING ACTIVE SETTING: Book 1,  co-author with Dianna Love of BREAK INTO FICTION: ™: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells from Adams Media, co-founder of  www.WriterUniv.com and a highly sought after instructor both on-line and at live workshops around the country. To find out more about Mary, her workshops and writing projects visit  www.MaryBuckham.com

59 comments:

Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks for the tips, Mary. This is great timing for me, as I head out this afternoon for a three-day solo writing retreat!

One of the lessons I learned many years ago in a writing group was to make the environment reflect the mood and action. If something bad is going to happen, maybe a cloud comes over or the wind picks up or there's the smell of smoke in the air. Something ominous. That really stuck with me.

Jessica said...

Setting so enhances a piece of fiction, the more specific the better. Also, I love stories set in unusual places I am unlikely to visit. Good post.

JudyinBoston said...

I love sinking my characters into settings be they 1928 LA or the Baltic Island of Ruegen. In the novel I'm reading now, "The Cutting Season," setting is as central to the main character's point of view as the plot or other characters. In fact the setting often becomes part of the plot. How the main character reacts with the setting can show you heaps about the character, too.

Hi Mary I've taken several of your writing courses always learn so much. You're a great teacher and motivator, and you make your students dig deep.

Judy Copek

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Mary,

I'm another fan of your online courses having greatly benefited from them.

In today's Twitter & YouTube world, readers aren't willing to wade through multiple pages of setting description as they required a century ago when most people had no visual perspectives other than from personal experience with their own small geographic area.

I like a quick intro and then more information fed in as part of the action.

~ JIm

Diane Hale said...

I've always felt setting was integral to plot, particularly in sci-fi/fantasy, where setting often becomes a character in it's own right.

Mary, I love the way you pare your info into easily understood format. It is a mighty gift.

JRW, thanks for introducing me to yet another fascinating author/teacher.

Jan Brogan said...

This is a great post Mary. Welcome to Jungle REd!

That was the first thing I had to learn, the difference between journalism and fiction is that description is no longer used to verify authenticity but to mirror the character and set a mood.

Interesting, when my husband was involved with a product placement company, he said the company always had to pay more to have the character of the show INTERACT with the product, because then people remembered it.

Makes sense readers would remember the detail more for the same reason.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, thank you Mary! I'm in the midst of revisions now, an I'll hold this in my head as I do them..

What do you think about weather? (Isn't that funny? Writers would not think that was an odd question..)

Terry Ambrose said...

Terrific advice, Mary. I've never been one to go into length setting descriptions, but my understanding of what a setting should do for a story were enhanced when I heard a well-known romance writer say that descriptions should be from the POV of the character and describe what they experience. I love your advice!
Terry

Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent reminders, Mary! Thanks so much.

I think setting is so important. I use it as a way to deepen characterization. Of course, sometime those tidbits of descriptive detail turn out to be clues and carry lots more weight.

And yes, Hank, what about weather? I know some editors don't like much about the weather in there, but I think weather affects our behavior and certainly our emotions.

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Edith and thanks for popping in before you depart! You're spot on in equating emotion emotion with weather as a means of foreshadowing for the reader. Or as an act of contrast, as in a sunny, blue sky day and then *bam* the letter/call/visit that changes everything arrives. :-) Enjoy your writing retreat -- sounds divine! Cheers ~~Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Jessica ~~ah, I so know what you mean. Vicarious travel is one of the great treats of great fiction :-) I love reading authors who make a setting come so alive I'm there, especially when I've never been in that location. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Judy C ~~so lovely to see you here! Setting as Character can be so fun and enhances so many stories, especially mysteries and series stories. Try and take the SW out of a Tony Hillerman mystery,or Florida out of Lucy Burdette's Key West food mystery series or New York out of Julia Spenser Fleming's series in the heart of the Adirondacks --place can make such a difference! Thanks so for stopping by, sharing and your kind words!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Jenni L. said...

Hi Mary, Great tips. A few years back, you edited some memoir pieces for me, and getting the setting right was a large part of the getting the story right. I still turn to your edits for specific insights in the stories I write now. :)

Jenni Legate

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Jim! Love connecting with familiar friends here!! You're spot on that too much Setting, in the wrong places and with the wrong focus can really flat line the pacing of a novel, which is one of the reasons I started teaching WRITING ACTIVE SETTING and created the book series [Book 1 already out, Books 2 and 3 coming in 2013]. As writers, specially if we struggle with how much Setting is too much or not enough, it behooves us to find tools to evaluate if we're giving the reader what they need to remain deep in the story and experience it as we intend them to experience it. Thanks for swinging by and sharing and may all your Setting descriptions hit the mark!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Diane H! Delighted to meet a new friend here at JRW! You're absolutely right that Setting or World Building makes such a difference in Fantasy and SciFi novels. Biggest challenge I've seen in newer writers in those genres is going overboard with Setting, so that the story gets lost or the focus is shifted away from what's happening in the story to focus the reader on the Setting. Too much Setting in the wrong places in a story can be as frustrating to a reader as too little. :-) Bottom line Setting must enhance the reader's experience of the story. If it doesn't every one loses. :-( Thanks for visiting JRW today Diane and here's hoping our paths cross again! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Jan B~~ thank you for such a warm greeting! Smart hubby in sharing his insight because it's absolutely spot on. :-) On the page we can create the same interaction between character and Setting to bring a Setting alive for the reader. We can mirror the character, show emotion but also add conflict, reveal back story, orient the reader into the shift of time or place, and even create a stronger sensory experience for the reader, all through Setting. A great tool that's often times overlooked or underused. :-)) Thanks for sharing and stopping by today! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Hank and here's to easy revisions!! [I'm selfish - I'm holding my breath waiting for Jane Ryland's next story!!]As for 'weather' editors and agents word writers against the dreaded don't start with weather opening because it's such a cliche. Writers then translate this to mean don't use weather in our novels, at all. There can be a happy mean if weather is used with a light touch. For example, if not all the weather is shown on the same note [thinking Beethoven's Fifth music cue here]. Or the reader is focused on the weather when it adds nothing to particular scene. Here's an example from WRITING ACTIVE SETTING: Book 2 [coming in Feb 2013]. Outside, the wind was howling and another line of black clouds was trooping over the city, Big slabs of bruise-colored clouds. ---The Coffin Dancer – Jeffrey Deaver. This forecasts emotion, tension and foreshadows conflict for the reader. If Deaver had written - Outside, the wind blew and another line of clouds was moving over the city. Big clouds. All the reader would have see were some clouds in the sky and nothing was added to the story. I hope this helps a smidge. Take care and thanks for swinging by today. Now back to those revisions - I'm waiting with baited breath! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Terry and yes, great advice on Setting. POV and Setting can add so much rich texture to a story. One of the exercises I have in WRITING ACTIVE SETTING: Book 1 is to have you, or a POV character, describe a personal space in their home - a bedroom or writing space and then take a different person [someone who can feel very different about that space] and describe it from their POV. IF the descriptions are the same or close you're most likely describing it from the writer's POV and not the character's. :-) Something that's very easy, especially for newer writers, to do. Delighted that you cruised by and shared today. Many thanks!! Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Linda R ~~ love your use of Setting to carry clues and add more details to a story! Nothing that's more frustrating to a reader than a long passage describing a room or place and that room or place adds nothing to the story. Grrrr :-). But it's so much fun when a reader discovers that the clues and hints were in plain sight all along at the end of the novel [not during the story]. A great visual example of this is the movie THE SIXTH SENSE. Love what a writer can learn from that movie! Thanks for popping in today and sharing!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Jenni and how lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words! In part as a result of my editing services, where I kept discovering how many writers struggle with Setting, regardless of what they write, I started paying a whole lot more attention to when Setting worked, or didn't work, to figure out why. When I discovered there's not a whole lot written about this amazing craft tool the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING book series evolved :-) As much as I love working with individual writers as I move more toward my own fiction writing, I'm finding there's not enough time in the day to do everything. So here's hoping WRITING ACTIVE SETTING helps those I can't help one on one. Thank you again for sharing and all the best with your writing!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Deb said...

Hi Mary! What a great post!

I've always considered setting as a character in my books--it's that important. My first love growing up was fantasy, especially Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, so perhaps it was that profound sense of place that informed my sensibilties as a writer.

And I love using weather to set mood. I often have a "weather arc" for the entire novel, and also like using it for contrast. In the latest book, the back story takes place in a very hot August; the front story in freezing January. One of the first things I ask myself when setting up a scene is "What's the weather?"

Your book sounds wonderful, both for new writers and for experienced writers who need a brush-up.

I hope we get to meet in person one day!

Lisa Alber said...

I'm a big fan of setting as character, and the moodier the better. I love your question, Hank, because when it comes to weather I used to think it was taboo--probably because of Snoopy's, "It was a dark and stormy night..." :-) But I loves me a nice enshrouding fog...

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Deb! Thanks for popping in and taking a moment to post. Isn't it fun how many of our favorite books are about more than the compelling characters, but also includes that sense of place the author was able to convey that stays with us long after we set the story down. I know I'm reading an author who understands the power of Setting if hours or even days after I've read their work I'm still in the hot, dry heat of the southwest, the mugginess of a Florida swamp or waiting for the first snow flurry even though I'm in an August afternoon. :-) Smart writer that you're consciously and intentionally thinking in terms of how to maximize Stetting, via weather, in your stories! Cheers and here's to the day our paths cross!! ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Lisa ~~love your use of Snoopy's classic weather cliche :-) What I find more amazing is when newer writers use weather at odds with the emotion they're trying to create on the page and then don't understand why the reader is not feeling the mood or intention of the passage. Using weather or Setting to contrast with the character's emotion can be powerful, IF intentional. A mother expecting a newborn child walking through a nursery sets one mood, a woman who just lost her child walking through a nursery should create a totally different set of emotions. The Setting remains the same. What the POV sees and feels, and thus shares with the reader, should be totally different. Thanks for swinging by today and sharing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Jack Getze said...

I have one thing to say about setting today: I'm in Puerto Vallarta and you are NOT!

Jacqui Lyonelle said...

Setting grounds me into the story but I don't want it to take over the story. I don't want to read (or write!) a travelogue nor do I want to read a bunch of talking heads!

I'm also a fan of Mary's online and in-person classes :-D

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Jack ~~ LOL! Hope it's beautiful there! Thanks for swinging by and sharing ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Jacqui ~~delighted to have you stop by today and thank you for your kind words! You're spot on in knowing that juggling Setting can be a balancing act. Some writers wait until they're revising to really dig in and see if their Setting is working hard enough or stopping the enjoyment for a reader. Thanks again for being here and sharing. Cheers~~ Mary B :-)

Nancy Kay Bowden said...

Mary, when you speak, I take lots of notes. Seriously, I just made a little sticky note list based on your suggestions and will check each setting! Thank you!! LOVE your classes!!! (and obviously exclamation marks)

Tiger said...

I never thought about setting much until I took Mary's course. Now I'm much more aware of it whether I'm reading, writing or critiquing a friends work. Hardest part is getting it right in my own work!

Mary Buckham said...

Nancy Kay ~~so fun to see you here!! One can never have too many sticky notes or !! when trying to improve one's craft. I even found a sticky note program on my laptop and most days can't see past them :-) Thanks for swinging by and have fun with your writing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Tiger ~~delighted to have you pop in today and you're so right. It's always easier to spot opportunities in another's work and hard to see those same opportunities in our own. That's why the best writers keep challenging themselves. Tickled pink that you're taking what you've learned and are sharing it, too! Cheers and take care ~~ Mary B :-)

Dianna Love said...

Wonderful blog on you and your much-loved new book on Active Settings, Mary. (Hi Hank!) I recommend it all the time when I talk to writers and believe the same way - the best writers constantly challenge themselves. You're so generous to allow time to teach others in your busy schedule - looking forward to your new Invisible Urban Fantasy series coming out in Feb 2013.

Barbara Vey said...

Just stopped by to say hi to Mary Buckham...everyone's favorite teacher!!

Anne Norup said...

Always love to hear what Mary has to say and glean a few more pearls of wisdom from her. Honing my writing has now officially become an obsession for me, in no small part thanks to Mary's inspiration! :)

Mary Buckham said...

Dianna ~~Many thanks for taking the time to stop by and visit!! All the best with the recent release of LAST CHANCE TO LOVE - a great book to study Active Setting! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Ah Barbara Vey ~~thanks for making my day and taking time out of your always busy travel schedule to swing on by. Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Anne ~~ Lol! Honing one's writing can be a good obsession :-) Thanks for sharing and have fun with the process of always improving your writing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

howdy rathore said...

I am glad I ran into this article.
I often have trouble deciding just how much description to include. 'Details that matter' is a simple but effective rule-of-thumb.
Wonderful tips, Mary!

Nayantara Swaminathan said...



Great advice, Mary.
Are the rules for writing setting in a short story same as that in a novel?

btw... absolutely adoring your book 'Break Into Fiction'

whitelie said...

It’s so easy to get carried away and work on details that are ultimately irrelevant to the plot.
My great struggle is when dealing with a made-up universe: how that world got to be the way it is... not just a different world but an entire different history.

Good post.

Anne Tanner said...

Great advice! Setting is so important for establishing the context of the story, and you have outlined it precisely.

sunny said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. It helped explain the necessity of putting in words what the senses automatically pick up in real life. I will definitely use your pointers on developing setting. Thanks!

sunny said...

Great post. I never really thought of setting in this way before. Setting being active, affecting the characters, reflecting their emotional states or even helping to move the plot forward. I just knew how much I enjoyed a book when the setting was so real I could see it or feel it as if I were there. Like
the beach in Robinson Crusoe when he saw the footprints after months of thinking he was alone on the island.

Patrick Hughes said...

Setting can serve as the foil of the protagonist every bit as much as a real person can. Or, it can be the “supporting actor” in a cast of human characters (like Gone With the Wind). Giving the setting a “voice” to bear witness to a time and a place and to the people inhabiting a particular period strengthens the writing immensely.

Big fan, Mary!

discarded manuscripts said...

For physical settings, I do like a taste of it, a sprinkling now and then, not a full blown description.
I particularly like how Susan Elizabeth Phillips uses setting to add to the sensuality of a scene.

Wonderful little reminders, Mary! Thanks

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Rowdy and thanks for taking the time to swing on by! Sometimes simple just works best doesn't it :-) Have fun with your writing!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Oh rats - not enough coffee for the fingers this morning. I should have typed Howdy not Rowdy - by Bad! Still appreciate your stopping here even if I can't type worth a darn. Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Discarded ~~ It's great to study the authors you like and learn from them. I ofter keep a notebook handy when reading to study everything from Active Setting to characterization, body language, sexual tension and fresh word spinning. Then dip into the notebook as a refreasher now and then. :-) Thanks for sharing and all the best with your writing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Patrick ~~great summation of the power of Active Setting! Thanks for sharing - love it when someone can get to the heart of the concept and nail it. Cheers ~~ Mary B :-) who also thanks you for the kind words!

Mary Buckham said...

Sunny ~~ delighted that you swung by and had a chance to expand your awareness of the use of Setting when writing. It can make such a difference in so many little ways. I'd say the use of the footprints are a great example of foreshadowing and adding conflict via Setting. The POV character's awareness of them changed his whole story. Thanks for swinging by and sharing!! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Anne ~~ yup, you nailed it! Setting does create a context for a story. Your story isn't happening in a vacuum, it creates context for what's about to unfold in your story as well as creates a deeper and richer reading experience for the reader. Powerful stuff :-) Delighted you were able to stop by and share! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi whitelie ~~ yes, there's so much behind the scenes work that an author must struggle with in creating the world of a story. Learning to sift and thread what you the author need to know on to the page so that the reader receives what they need and not more is a challenge. The best writing happens when the reader no longer sees any of the Setting creation but knows it's adding to their reading pleasure. Thanks for sharing and all the best with your writing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Nayantara ~~how lovely to have you stop by and ask a great question. Yes, the concepts apply to short story, memoir, narrative nonfiction as well as fiction. If you use setting make it matter to the ultimate story. Chunks [think a paragraph or so as opposed to a sentence or two here and there] tends to slow your pacing and for a lot of beginners Setting is nothing more than exposition or big chunks of narrative. Hope this helps and delighted that you're enjoying Break Into Fiction - it's the plotting book I wish I had when I was starting out :-) Cheers! ~~ Mary B :-)

Robert Holdstock said...

I believe readers do about 90 percent of the work when it comes to description. If as a writer, you provide the key details, the reader will do the rest. Say, there's a bar where one spot of carpet is a brighter green than the rest, marking the spot where the manager used spray paint to hide a vomit stain. That one detail not only captures the atmosphere of the place, it also gives us a bit of insight into the manager. Rather than following the "kitchen sink" approach, highlighting a few details that exemplify the setting works wonders.

Jack Kallis said...

Paying close attention to the setting will often times enable the reader to understand why characters act the way they do.

Love your pointers.

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Robert ~~ Thanks so much for swinging by and sharing your insights. They're spot on! The one challenge I've found with the err on the side of spare approach is there are key places in your story you need to quickly orient the reader as to where they are, the passage of time, and changes in the Setting so they can keep their focus on the story. Change of Scenes, change of POV, openings of a new chapter - a hint more Setting [not the kitchen sink :-)] can work extra hard to keep the reader focused on what you want them to focus on - the forward momentum of the story. Thanks again for sharing! ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

Hi Jack! Great insights into a powerful way to use Setting that many writers skip over. Classic example of show don't tell. By letting the reader see and experience enough of the Setting to explain the POV character's choices and decisions is a win-win! Thanks for sharing! Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary Buckham said...

THANK YOU! To everyone who has stopped by and jumped into the discussion on ACTIVE SETTING, to Roberta Isleib who invited me to JRW and to every writer who keeps challenging themselves to improve their craft!! Congratulations to Terry Ambrose and Jack Goetz who won a copy of WRITING ACTIVE SETTING: Book 1 - I hope you enjoy it!! Cheers and happy writing ~~ Mary B :-)