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Making Setting Interactive

Years ago, it was appropriate to have long chunks of description about the setting. These could go on for several pages. No one thought twice about it. That’s changed in today’s publishing world. One of the biggest problems I see on this front in my editing is the information dump. The setting may be beautifully described and very vivid, but it goes on too long. And it’s static. 

Here’s an example from one of my editing clients (used with her permission).
We stepped off this elevator to navy and gold marble floors. A seating of two boxy and uncomfortable looking cream leather couches, two matching low coffee tables and two leather chairs with crazy pear shaped high backs in a golden color. The floor looked like it went up the walls with the glass marble effect on the two walls to the left and right of me. The office smelled strongly of chai.

Mulder pulled a gold key ring from his pocket and unlocked his office. The door opened into a long narrow hallway, with bright sunshine shinning at the other end. Both the floor and the walls were made of real wood, an oak or pine – I didn’t know. Every couple of feet glass light fixtures mounted on the walls reflected light onto the glossy floor. Even with the lights and the promise of morning light at the other end, the trek down the hall was dark and mysterious. 

It’s a list of what the room is like. If you have the characters interact with the setting, it brings it alive and makes it more real. In a movie, the camera doesn’t pan the room so you can get an idea of what it looks like. Instead, the characters move around the set. You know there is a comfy couch when the character kicks off his shoes and curls up on it.  You see the big screen TV when he picks up the remote and clicks it on.

I cut this down quite a bit in the example. It went on a good deal longer. And it wasn’t necessary. She could get the idea of wealth and opulence across in fewer words, and by having the characters interact with the setting. That makes it come alive and be real.  

Here is what it’s like with the characters interacting with the setting.
Stepping off this elevator, the odor of chai greeted us. My tennis shoes squeaked on the mirror-smooth navy and gold floors as we walked past a seating area with crazy, pear-shaped, high back, golden chairs. I saw my reflection in the walls with the same glass-marble effect. 

Mulder pulled a gold key ring from his pocket and unlocked his office. The door opened into a long narrow hallway. The floorboards creaked under our feet as we walked down the dark tunnel, only sunshine from up ahead lighting our way. Silly, I know, but the passage reminded me of ones leading to the dungeons in ancient castles. 

See the difference? In the first, there’s the smell of chai, but in the second, the character smells the chai. In the first, the floors are blue and gold, but in the second, his tennies come in contact with the floor and squeak. In the first, the hallway is long and dark with wood floors, but in the second, the floors creak and the passage sparks a thought. 

The setting is still described, but it doesn’t interfere with the action of the story. It comes alive when it’s treated as a character interacting with another character. It adds to the story, rather than detracting from it. It’s vibrant. And nothing is lost because of this. The point is to give the flavor of the place without dumping all the information in. And readers like to imagine places in their own minds.

Pick a scene from your WIP and make the setting more interactive. Have fun!

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