Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ask O: How Do I Keep Readers from Getting Lost?

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

Today’s question is about setting. Some call it story world.

Recently, I looked over a paper for a student in English 101. This person had no experience writing papers at all. I easily fixed the grammar and punctuation errors (wondering why a high school teacher didn’t teach the basics to this poor soul). But the more difficult bit to correct was the confusing sense of place. I liked the concept of the story, but very early on, I got lost.

I wrote comments like, “I thought he was on a cliff. How did he get onto the ladder?” and “Where did all these people come from?” and “How did he get that sword?”

I understand the problem. Often my story is so clear in my mind, I forget readers don’t have the same clarity. Here are a few tips to keep readers on track.

Ground Each Scene: I try to start each scene with an introduction of the setting. If it’s the first scene in a certain place, I give more page-space to the description. It’s almost like introducing a character. I show the different elements that make up the location: the bearskin rug, crackling fire, porcupine cooking on the stove. (Sorry, I’m still in Alaska mode.)

In subsequent scenes, even if it takes place in the same room (or cabin or castle), the reader may forget where the characters are. I do sometimes! So I almost always throw in a wee reminder. If my character is in the cabin, I’ll have him notice the snow falling outside the windows or take in the folks joining him for an evening of guitar singing around the fire. Just a quick hint, not a full-on description, brings it back. "Oh yeah, I remember this place."

Who, What, When, Where, Why, How: Sometimes when I’m first writing a scene, I’ll simply tell the answers to these questions in the first paragraph. Yes, I said “tell.” Gasp! Especially if I’m unclear about the setting, I just spew it out in a narrative mess. Then, when I’ve answered the five Ws and an H, I move on. I’ve noticed when editing that forgetting even one of these questions (who, what, when, and where in particular) leaves me feeling ungrounded and distracted from the characters’ plight. We don’t want that! So be sure to include them.

Sprinkle: Once the setting’s clear to me, I break up that “telling” paragraph into smaller parts which I spread throughout the exciting and heart-wrenching (I hope!) scene I’m creating. There needs to be enough at the beginning to ground the reader, but more of the details can be peppered throughout. This helps continue the sense of “being there.”

These three tips should help you keep yourself (and readers) from roaming around your story looking confused. What are your suggestions for grounding readers in your story world? I’d love to hear.

Happy writing and God bless!