Setting Skimmers

A single prop that does not look real to an audience can louse you up. ~Desi Arnaz

A few days ago I woke up to a winter wonderland in our front yard. The setting was perfect for curling up beside the fire with a cup of hot chocolate.

We’ve been talking about setting, giving your story a stage that has a well-defined concept. I’m a visual person who has designed several stage sets so I love setting. Giving a character a location and then putting them at odds with this location helps create conflict.

But some readers are “setting skimmers.” They come across a paragraph with birds soaring in a cloudless blue sky over a flower-strewn meadow and they immediately start looking for the next quotation mark. Why? Maybe it’s because our settings don’t offer that conflict a reader craves. But doesn’t adding extra words encourage skimmers not to read? Not if the setting is doled out in short snippets and each snippet has a point.

In The Ladies Auxiliary, a story about a free-spirit that moves into a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community, Tova Mirvis takes a single sentence of stage setting and enhances the story’s conflict.

“Each week, when the last glimpses of sun were fading behind the trees, we looked around our spotless houses, smelled the freshly cooked food, and felt a sense of wonder that once again we had finished in time.”

The author stages the set with sights and smells we can use to mentally build a picture of a quiet, tree-lined suburban street. But behind the doors of those perfect houses, we get the sense that something isn’t right. Why? Because the setting is also sprinkled with conflict. There is a sense of urgency undergirding this slow-paced life. Why did these Jewish housewives have to finish their chores on time? What would have happened to them if they didn’t? Conflict drives the story forward and keeps the reader reading.

When the set pieces are dressed in conflict, even a skimmer must take note.

This is my back yard. Four trees toppled, completely uprooted. Despite the beauty, snow in the South creates all sorts of trouble. Some folks lost their electricity. Some slid off the road. Some are still cleaning up trees snapped like toothpicks. Two different sides to the same setting.

Look at your setting. Highlight how it should be then find a way to make the opposite happen.

P.S. Check out my new blog with Lisa Harris: Inspire. Be Inspired.

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About lynnegentry

Wife. Mother. Writer. Acting Coach. Director of Dallas International Performing Arts Academy.
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12 Responses to Setting Skimmers

  1. Holly Smith says:

    Sure enjoyed your post as usual. I never really thought of the conflict setting-how creative and like you say catchy for the skimmers. On another note-what a picture-I know you hate to lose 4 trees-my word! Like you say the South is not used to this-I was shocked that snow seemed so heavy to uproot trees but it did everywhere! Think I am ready for spring! Holly

  2. I’ll admit openly and with a level of shame, I am a set skimmer.

    Unless…

    I read an author who laces conflict or hidden meanings within each of their descriptions–then the story goes beyond the visual to emotion. 🙂

  3. Kellie Gilbert says:

    I love setting when done like you describe!

  4. Beth Goddard says:

    Great post, Lynne. How long does it take you to think these up? LOL. I think setting is important, too, and often my ideas stem from setting. But, I also find myself skimming and I think you’ve nailed it. Setting and descriptions can and should add to the conflict so the readers know why it’s important, rather than simply dumped in so we know what we’re looking at. Honestly, I could write my characters without descriptions too because it gives the reader the chance to imagine them however they want to. But of course our editors and publishers want those descriptions.

    Beth

    • lynnegentry says:

      Confessions of a skimmer…good for the soul. But we can’t assume all readers have our vivid imaginations. If they did, they’d be writers. Sparking and guiding their imaginations down the path we’ve created is our job. Thanks for stopping by and for the great comment.

  5. Lee Carver says:

    Sometimes I read something so true it just slaps me in the face. DUH! I shoulda been doing this all along. Pardon me while I go back to my unsold manuscript and look for the places that need a setting fix.

  6. Julie Marx says:

    Hmm. You give us much to ponder, Lynne. As usual. 🙂

  7. PatriciaW says:

    How interesting. I’ve never thought about conflict within the setting, unless it’s something so obvious like some form of extreme weather conditions. But the example you provided did whet my appetite and make me wonder what was going on. I’m new to your blog but I’ll be reading more.

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