Over at The Blood-Red Pencil, my new friend Heidi Thomas (author of “Cowgirl Dreams”) has a provocative post about setting and its role as a character in a story.

Near the outset, she writes:

As a reader, I like to have enough details about the setting to know where the characters are, in what time period the story takes place, and what the place looks like. If it takes place in a barber shop, I’d like to know that. But unless the barber shop has some unusual decorations or is in an unusual location, I really don’t need the author to describe it. We’ve all seen barber shops, and they basically look the same.

This is an important point, and it hits on a vital aspect of storytelling: separating the details that advance the story or lend useful information from the ones that don’t. Put another way, what you don’t write is almost as important as what you do.

This is a tough chore. It’s all too easy to fall off the ledge of being too expository — that is, telling the readers rather than showing them or allowing them to reach their own conclusions. Exposition makes for easy writing, but it’s generally hard reading. When I’m in the revision phase, seven times out of 10, if I’m cutting swaths of prose, it’s because I became too expository.

The passages I feel best about are the ones that draw a loose sketch of a person or a place — enough details to get the readers into it, but also not so many that I take the story from them. Anyone who has read “The Catcher in the Rye” has his or her own concept of what Holden Caulfield looks like. It matters little whether your mental picture looks like mine. In fact, it’s rather fun that we get to apply our own vision to the same story and same character.

Later, Heidi writes:

Everything you write should be colored by your point-of-view character’s mood and feelings. For instance, a character who is having a bad day probably wouldn’t notice the flower starting to bloom on the plant beside her desk. But she probably would notice the smudge on the computer screen, the annoying smudge that always seems to be where she needs to look.

You’ve no doubt heard the showbiz expression “what’s my motivation?” It’s a useful question when you’re building characters on a page, too. If you’re standing outside them, you don’t have the right vantage point. Somehow, you need to get behind the character and see what he/she sees and let that inform what you write. If you can get to that place, you’re far less likely to hit an off-key note or cause your character to do something that is out of touch with how you’ve drawn him.

Near the end of her post, Heidi finishes with something that should be required reading of anyone telling a story:

Whenever you stop to describe something in fiction, the progress of the story stops. Readers want movement, so every pause to describe or present a lot of factual background can weaken or kill the reader’s interest. The key is to sprinkle sensory descriptions throughout the story, rather than “dumping” them in great gobs.

Put another way: Moderation in all things. It’s excellent advice for healthy living, and for healthy writing.

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