Self-Editing Your Manuscript: Revitalizing Your Setting
The setting should be as essential to the manuscript as the character and plot. Without the setting, your characters would meander around an abyss of nothing with no discernible life, just floating people and an occasional pop of something like a dagger in their hands, or even a staircase. Have you noticed that that happens as you read back over your manuscript?
The setting should be intrinsic to the world. If characters appear in a place, there needs to be a reason for it, and if the characters are in a setting they need to interact with it. Otherwise, they have become floating bodies in an abyss of white with nothing to help ground the readers in their reality. The setting is more than what we see with our eyes. It should involve all the senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, and scent. Word count is precious in short fiction; do not let the eyes have it all.
Note: if your character is missing any of these senses, simply skip over it and think of how you can use the others to better let your reader imagine the world as the characters are experiencing it.
As you work through your manuscript, also ask yourself if you are using the right words to describe your character’s senses. A character’s personality and emotion will heavily impact the words used to describe the setting. Imagine coming upon a pond in the forest. That little bit of water is going to have a different description to a group of friends on a nature hike than it would to stranded travelers who are lost and dehydrated. In the same way, it would be different to someone who is afraid of the water as opposed to someone who loves it. The character(s) should help you define the word choice for setting your scenes.
This is one not often forgotten when working through a manuscript. Many writers find themselves hacking away the words ‘see’, ‘saw’, and ‘seen’ like thorny brambles around a golden treasure chest. You are free to simply describe things that the characters are observing because it is your description that lets us follow the camera pan of their eyes.
Did you have a quick blanket-style description to start the scene before you focused on the more intricate details? This establishing shot is a quick view to place the main elements of your story so that the reader understands what to imagine. This makes it less confusing when your characters start interacting, as you’ve already established certain things were present.
It can be easy to forget to include what things feel like when writing, as most of the feeling goes into the emotions. Rough bark on a tree scratching against someone’s hand, or how hot or cold something is as it touches the skin. That blade may be cold when pressed to your character’s neck by an enemy, or it could still be warm with the previous victim’s blood.
Did you make sure that your character was able to touch/feel things in the physical world of their setting? Patting someone on a shoulder in congratulations will feel different if they’ve freshly bathed, or they’ve just been covered in monster entrails.
This is not always another character, but their surroundings. If they do not interact with where they are, it may be time to consider why they are even in that particular place.
Whether hearing the trilling of monsters closing in, the groaning of another character, a babbling brook, or the scratch of pencils on paper… Sound is just another way to breathe more life and immersion into your character’s world.
A note on filters. Heard and hear, while valid at times, do not always need to be used to describe the sound in one’s fiction. Simply being told that a piano played softly, or nails scratched against wood is more than enough for the reader.
Did you incorporate sound into your manuscript, in more than just dialogue?
This is where food is always fun to play with in a manuscript, but with short fiction, what if you don’t have a scene where the characters eat? You don’t have to add those kinds of scenes just to fulfill this sensory element.
Maybe you have a character just wanting to get through the story so they can have a delectable piece of pie that they may or may not get by the end. If a character has their face pushed into the dirt, dirt has a taste. The grainy texture can make them overly aware of their tongue, and even bring bile–which also has a taste–to their mouth. Blood can leave a metallic flavor, and there’s a powdery substance on gloves.
Have you included taste in your manuscript, either through action or memory?
Much like with taste, it’s not hard to want to toss in every delicious sounding word to describe the way food smells, or even someone–sandalwood is quite popular. However, scent goes beyond food and even people when it comes to setting a scene.
An unused and dusty room can smell musty, or if there is something old and decaying in the cellar, rot and death can choke your character. It is also easy to flip the script, as they say, and include appealing scents, a common one being the cleanliness of lemon, or freshly baked cookies, and have it at war with the scene–more disturbing for your reader.
Bonus Setting Tip: Weather.
One of the easiest ways to set the mood and even speak for a story’s theme is the weather. By nature, humans–readers–take cues from their surroundings. Dark clouds gathering in the distance can be an omen, and a storm with a torrential downpour when you finally enact your vengeance can be a visual theme of washing the old version of the character away. In that same way, your character can have a happy, shining day, with no clouds and blue sky when something tragic happens–the weather helps the irony of the concept of a perfect day hit a bit harder.
How have you used the weather to set the mood in your manuscript? You may notice that you placed everything organically. If you didn’t, consider ways to pull more depth of the world up for the reader. Is there an interesting way to play with the weather of your setting to make the story mood have more impact?
Next Self-Editing Topic:
Next time we’ll start diving into your prose. How can you line edit your own work?
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