Tag Archives: writing setting

How to Keep Readers From Skimming Over Your Passages about Setting

11 Jan

Pre-orders available now.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the term “page turner.” I love thrilling novels as much as the next person and remember lying on the mattress on the floor of my bare-walled college apartment one summer, reading the latest Harry Potter novel until about four in the morning. But as much as I love dying to know what will happen, I just as equally loathe when I’m so compelled to reach the end that I start flipping ahead. That’s the wrong sort of page-turner. At the very least, the prose ought to hold your eye to every word.

The passages most likely to get skimmed by readers are descriptions of setting—and for good reason. Done badly, they are mere lists of adjectives and florid metaphors. Readers skim them because they don’t do anything. “Yes,” we think, “we get it: the mountains are tall and pretty. Now, move it along.”

The best writers can make descriptions of setting as interesting and compelling as the drama that follows. The trick is learning how to do it yourself.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from one novel and three stories: “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are is step one for each exercise:

Take a Tour, inspired by “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley

  1. IDENTIFY THE MOTIVE FOR THE TOUR. The character leading the tour may have a destination in mind. Or the tour might be a way to kill time until some scheduled or expected moment. In McConigley’s case, the tour leads to both: a destination where Larson will make his request. This intention, or motive, is crucial. Without it, the characters are simply wandering around.



Break Setting into Neighborhoods, inspired by “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A NEIGHBORHOOD TO INHABIT. To start, choose a common term (downtown, suburbs, etc.) that broadly applies to the neighborhood where your character lives, works, or spends time. Imagine that the character (or someone else) is explaining the location of this neighborhood. What phrase or term would be used? Not every character will necessarily use the same term. People who live downtown often view anything beyond their borders as the suburban hinterland, but people living outside of downtown will say things like, “I’m only 10 minutes from downtown,” suggesting that the suburbs are farther out. What does your character (and others) call your character’s neighborhood?

Give Setting a Human Geography, inspired by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER BEHAVIOR TO OBSERVE. Just as people who buy cars or have babies tend to pay close attention to other cars and other parents with babies, all people/characters tend to notice certain behaviors more than others. The question is this: What concerns are on your character’s mind? Someone who just bought a car, for example, is worried about buying the best/cheapest/safest one. What decision has your character made or what decisions must the character make on a daily basis? The rationale for those decisions will likely cause the character to notice people with the same rationale or, perhaps, who make different choices.

Manipulate Characters with Setting, inspired by “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis

  1. START WITH A PRONOUN. Davis’ story begins with we. It’s impersonal; we could be anyone. By the end of the sentence, it’s clear that the identity of we is wholly contingent on the setting. We are the people on the airplane. Nothing else about them matters. So, give yourself a pronoun: we, he, she, us, they, it. Don’t use a name. Avoid nailing down details for now. The point is to give your story a warm body, nothing more.


Setting should be more than a backdrop. The best writers find ways to bring setting and drama together, forcing them to interact.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

An Interview with Michael Yang

16 Oct
Michael Yang's story, "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless," tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless,” tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael B. Yang’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Seattle Review. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is currently working on a novel.

To read his story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” and an exercise on using setting and backdrop to heighten the tension in small, intimate dramas, click here.

Michael Noll

Ron Carlson has said that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. I usually read that to mean that there’s the dramatic thing that happens and the more mundane context that lends the drama meaning. But you seem to have reversed the roles in this story. The story about the child actress and her struggling mother is, in some ways, more mundane than the background world of a serial killer on the loose. Did you ever play around with making the serial killer more physically present in the story? I’m curious how the story found its eventual form.

Michael Yang

Okay, here’s my confession. I just checked and the first draft of the story was written in 2007. That’s seven years since I began writing it until it got published. Seven years. I don’t know how many drafts there have been in the interim.

Strangely, in all those drafts I don’t think that the serial killer was ever present in the story. This was for a number of reasons. First of all, and this might seem odd, but I thought it would be more realistic. Even if you’re in the same time and place where there is a mass murderer, I think it would be pretty unlikely that you’ll be their victim. It’s more likely that you will run into them by chance and nothing happens. Afterwards, you might say that they were nice people who quiet and kept to themselves (of course), but it’s more likely that you would survive the encounter. Second, I wanted to create a feeling of unease and fear in living in the same city as a serial killer. I imagine the sense of danger would color every interaction, and that was the backdrop I wanted in the story.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Los Angeles, which has been used as a setting countless times and, as a result, brings its own fictional weight to a story. I mean, it’s possible to talk about L.A. stories in a way that you can’t talk about Kansas City stories or El Paso stories. Yet, I really felt that I was seeing the world for the first time. In part, the freshness is likely from the niche that you portray: acting tryouts for children appearing in commercials. The characters also spend time in an apartment, which is something that you, as the writer, can create from scratch, rather than relying on tropes that already exist. Still, was it difficult to set a story in a place that has been written about so many times?

Michael Yang

Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

I know, you’re right. The location is very familiar and there was some pressure in writing about a known place. On top of that, it has auditions and struggling actors, not exactly the freshest take on an L.A. story. I do think that in the very first drafts the story might have taken place in another city, but Sara was too ambitious to remain there and I thought it would heighten the stakes if her dreams were in reach, with the reality of failure more palpable.

I’ve always been fascinated by the entire, difficult process of creating movies, but it seemed interesting to write about it from the perspective of someone experiencing the day-to-day grind. And really, the constant failure and rejection of the actors seemed familiar. It reminded me of being a writer. There’s also a grotesque element in the process of child acting and the pursuit of fame, but I wanted to flip it slightly on its head by making the child the propulsive force instead of the stage mother. When I sent out the story, I had a few comments that Sara seemed to act too old for her age, but I think it fit her character. A very ambitious child can seem older and more business-savvy than someone else her age. I hoped it worked out.

Sara is a product of Hollywood, a place where her ambitions have taken her, so the topic defined the location which helped define the characters.

Michael Noll

The story is remarkably tight given how much exists just off the page. For instance, we know that the narrator has left her husband and her home in Texas to take her daughter to Los Angeles, but the husband appears only in the briefest of scenes, and even then, the focus is on the daughter, not him. Texas is referenced in passing. Did those parts of the story ever push themselves onto the page more fully? Did you have to revise them out, or were they always just in the background?

Michael Yang

This is also strange, but in all those drafts I don’t think that I ever wrote the scenes with both parents. I knew what the relationship was like between the mother and the father and why they broke up, but I wanted the story to take place as close to the ending as possible and I really wanted the fun of writing the commercials. By the way, if you have the chance to write a scene with a made-up advertisements for a fictional product, I highly recommend it.

I first drafted the story when I was examining my own writing process. It was around this time that I decided to think and plot less in the first draft. Even though I might have a general idea of the story’s direction, I wanted to follow where my subconscious took me, hoping that the turns would be surprising and make sense as I was typing. There’s a danger to this – where the wheels of the story might fall into familiar ruts, whether into cliches or into my own habits and proclivities – but the flashes of discovery, when they come, can be exciting.

Michael Noll

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

The story is playing around with the genre of tabloid sensationalism—the title is “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” As a result, I found it interesting how you develop the tension in the novel. When Frank appears, and when the narrator tells him off and then when he shows up at her apartment, I (and probably all readers) thought, “Uh oh.” We expected something awful to happen. And it may eventually happen, but not yet, not within the frame of this story. That must have been a difficult temptation to resist—to not fulfill the bloody expectations of the title, even though the way the story does end is a lot more unsettling than murder. How many drafts it took you to find that ending?

Michael Yang

I’m not certain how many drafts it took for me before I came up with the ending, but I’m pretty happy with it. For me, the appearance of the chicken man seems strange and unexpected, and right.

I was inspired by the essay “Narrative Spandrels” by the writer Robert Boswell in his craft book The Half-Known World. In the essay, he talks about how as we write, there can be an unintended image that recur throughout the story. It’s not planned and may seem inessential, a byproduct of our writing the primary scenes, but if we pay attention, it can shape the story, supply a sub-text, or gesture to the heart of our meaning.

As I worked on the many drafts of my story, at some point I noticed how many times chickens made an appearance, from the mother’s distaste of how live chickens look and act (my niece told me a story about how her pet chickens nearly pecked another, injured chicken to death), how they feed her child, how the old jingle from Chicken Tonight was a bonding experience during better days with her daughter. I also realized that the general feeling in the story was the same as touching raw chicken skin, which is a little disgusting and is also the same creeping sensation the mother feels towards L.A.

By the way, my fantastic editors asked me if the chicken man was entirely necessary, and I said, yes, yes he is.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

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