Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Case of the Vanishing Setting
As authors, we usually consider ourselves the masters of the crimes committed in our stories—not the victims. But, as Sherlock, Poirot, and Castle will tell you, the sneakiest crimes are always those in which the victim doesn’t even realize he’s been ripped off. Such is the Case of the Vanishing Setting.
This is one of the most common problems I encounter in unpublished manuscripts, and it’s one most authors don’t even realize they’ve fallen prey to. Mostly, this is because, as the authors, we have a crystalline image of our settings. We see everything so perfectly that we don’t always realize we’re not providing the reader the necessary details to allow him to see the setting. The result is White Wall Syndrome. Because readers have no visual clues to construct the setting, they visualize the characters in a hazy white space. To put it mildly, it’s confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying.
How is it our settings can just arbitrarily vanish from our scenes? Let’s take a look at an example:
Marjolaine stopped to talk to Annie. She crossed her arms. “I don’t get it. Why did you publish those lies about me?”
Annie pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t publish lies. I publish the truth. You did steal that kid’s piggy bank.”
“It was my kid’s piggy bank!”
“So? You still stole it.”
“It was a just punishment. He pulled his sister’s hair.”
“You call that a just punishment? What kind of mother are you?”
“The kind that sues for libel!”
Now, admittedly, this mistake is a bit difficult to illustrate properly in just a few paragraphs. There’s nothing technically wrong with my example. A few lines of dialogue and character interaction without mention of the setting is not only acceptable but often necessary. But imagine that this scene goes on for a full page with no mention of the setting. Then the problems become three-fold:
Readers have no idea where the characters are. Are they at Marjolaine’s house? Are they at Annie’s office at the newspaper/magazine/station? Are they on the street or at a café?
Readers have no idea what this setting looks like. Even had I revealed that the exchange took place at Annie’s magazine office, readers still have no physical details around which to build the scene. How many chairs are there? Is there a window? Are they speaking in private, or are other people in the room or just outside the open door? Is the office that of an editor or just a lowly cubicle? We’re missing all kinds of opportunities to learn more about Annie and her job simply because we’re not able to see where she works.
Because we can’t see the setting, we also can’t visualize the characters’ interaction with the setting. How are they moving within this space? Are they both sitting down? Is Annie sitting while Marjolaine stands? Or is Annie scooping papers from the printer as she rushes to leave on assignment? Not only does this scene give the reader nothing but white walls, it also turns the characters into talking heads.
Fortunately, the solution is both intuitive and fun. Fleshing out settings can bring our stories to life and give us opportunities to grow closer to our characters and learn more about them. If we were to correct the problems in our original example, the new and improved version might look something like this:
Marjolaine stopped at the Gossip Gala building to talk to Annie. She stormed into the huge, cluttered office and kicked the door shut behind her. Feet spread on the threadbare carpet, she crossed her arms. “I don’t get it. Why did you publish those lies about me?”
In the corner of the room, Annie looked up from the printer. It clicked and whirred, choking on a paper jam. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t publish lies. I publish the truth.” She yanked the papers from the printer feed and threw them in the general direction of the waste bin under the desk. From the looks of the trash on the floor, she wasn’t any better an aim the rest of the time than she was now. “You didsteal that kid’s piggy bank.”
“It was my kid’s piggy bank!”
“So? You still stole it.” She plopped down in her big swivel chair and hitched it closer to the desk. She didn’t look up at Marjolaine as she pawed through the mess of papers and crushed soda cans to grab a thin leather briefcase.
“It was a just punishment.” Marjolaine stomped forward and planted both hands on the desk. “He pulled his sister’s hair.”
Annie finally looked up, eyebrows knit. For a moment, the only sound in the office was the garbage truck rattling through the alley outside the window and the buzz of reporters talking in the other room. Finally, she shook her head. “You call that a just punishment? What kind of mother are you?”
Marjolaine could have slapped her. Instead, she reached out and swiped all the junk on the desk onto the floor. Then she stood up and tugged her blazer jacket straight. “The kind that sues for libel!”
See the difference? Suddenly, we have not just an animated discussion floating somewhere in the ether, but a visible and believable argument between two women in a concrete setting. Run an eye through your scenes and make sure you’ve given readers the clues they need to see your setting. They’ll thank you!