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Writing Tips 14 - Describing Setting, and an Intro to Foreshadowing

07/08/2020

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Impression and atmosphere. Those are the functions and goals of setting.

For 3rd person POV normal scenic descriptions are usually best, but for 1st person and deep pov, the easiest way to make descriptions more interesting, is to combine them with a person's thoughts, and attach a likeness to them.

For example: Aunt Eileen’s whole house had a 1950’s decor. The couches and chairs were a disgusting pea green and the walls a complimenting mustard yellow that was offensive to the eyes. Vintage furniture littered the room like she’d bought out an old woman’s garage sale, and her Aunt’s proudest piece sat in the far corner of the room; an antique grandfather clock.

By inserting the character's thoughts with a subtle word of what feeling (in this case, disgusting) they get from the subject, you can not only describe the scene but also give the reader (and character) the impression you were going for.

By saying the color was disgusting, that tells the reader it's unpleasant. Whereas if you were to say it was a grass green, they will have a very different feeling about that couch.

On the second point, by saying it looks like she bought everything from an old woman's garage sale, it gives the reader an instant atmosphere to grasp. This woman's taste is tacky and old fashioned, and doubles as giving insight into this woman's character.

In reference to a previous tip, Don't describe things that aren't there. Do describe what is.

Don't say: Aunt Eileen's house didn't have a modern homey feel like houses on the block. There was no white picket fence or cheerful little flower boxes in the windows.

Do say: Aunt Eileen's house was old and dated. The decor reminisce of the 1950's when poodle skirts were the fashion and women wearing shorts was considered promiscuous clothing.

This way you don't have to describe every little detail of the room in order for them to get the picture and you can focus on what's important, while blurring the background.

Think of it like the focus in a photo, where the subject is crisp and detailed, and everything else is blurred yet still identifiable.

You can immediately identify what you should be looking at. Like in this photo:

 

Bonus tip: An advanced way to use this technique is for foreshadowing.

Give a moderate amount of detail to something that you as the writer know is important, but give more attention to something else that is more pressing.

For (a long) example:

Annex walked into the kitchen to find his wife beside the stove with a pot of boiling potatoes, cutting up the chicken for dinner. She glanced up and gave him a warm smile, "I hope you're hungry, I'm making my mother's chicken casserole." 

Annex didn't return the smile or reply. He simply set a small stack of papers on the counter and slid them towards her. Mary paused and stared at the black letters of a single word on the crisp white paper 'Divorce'. The sounds of chopping ceased as she looked up into his dark brown eyes.

"I'm sorry, Mary. I can't live like this anymore."

Mary's face went slack and the hair on the back of Annex's neck stood up, his eyes darting to the knife gripped in her hand. A sudden 'shing' made him flinch and step back, pressing his back against the cabinets while Mary finished cutting the meat and went to stab one of the potatoes to see if they had softened.

She pulled the vegetable back out and walked towards him, plumes of steam rising from the hot blade, and a sweet smile drew up the corner's of ruby red lips, small red heels clicking as she walked towards him. Her words slithered with poison like the apple that put Snow-White to sleep.

"We've talked about this, dear. Whether or not you can live like this doesn't matter, if you wish to keep living at all." She gently pat his cheek, the oil from the uncooked chicken making his eyes water and his face already began to itch, no doubt starting to bloom with red blotches as she looked at him with a venomous, loving gaze.

"Now go wash up for dinner. You're distracting me with this cute face, I wouldn't want to accidentally put chicken in your portion, sweetheart."

 

See what I did there? It's basically a bait and switch.

By saying she was cutting up chicken, and then immediately redirecting to the divorce papers, I completely disguised the threat within the scene and only once you knew there was a threat because of Annex's behavior and his body's reaction to the chicken grease on her hand, did you made the connection.

That is what foreshadowing is all about, and why it's one of the highest grade skills of a writer.

In my experience, you can tell an author is good by how well they can foreshadow.

It's one of the hardest things to learn and the easiest to screw up, even if you've been doing it for a long time. So don't feel discouraged if it feels like you're trying to grab a wet bar of soap. Just keep it simple at first, keep in mind that what you're doing is redirecting the reader's attention away from something important to something shinier that seems more important, and eventually you'll figure out and get a sense for how to handle it.

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