Today, we're starting a new series called From the Edit Desk. The short blog posts in this series will offer helpful tips on issues we see in manuscripts that cross our path or that we've encountered in the past. They're not meant to pick on any author - they're meant to serve as a guide to help writers improve their craft. As always, feel free to ask questions.
Today's topic: Sense of Place
Have you ever been so lost in thought you couldn't remember where you were or why you were there? Or wake up from a deep sleep and not know where you were or what day it was? Writers may do this more than anyone else, and sometimes this comes across in their manuscripts.
A sense of place is a common problem I see in books and scripts that I read. Writers may know their story world backward and forward, upside down and right side up, but if they do not convey this, the audience will be lost. Sense of place is important not only in fiction but in nonfiction as well - you want to plant the audience firmly in your world, whether it's real or not.
The best way to convey sense of place is in the details. Don't bog down the audience with an information dump, spelling out pages of backstory or descriptions. Instead, pay attention to details that could offer clues and layer them in through dialogue or narrative.
Answer unasked questions about time, place, season:
What year is it? What are one or two things relevant to that particular year/decade/century? For example, a character probably wouldn't be answering a cellphone in the 1850s.
Look around (in your story world, that is) and use sensory details. Find something unique that your character can see, smell, hear, taste, or touch that would convey information the audience needs and layer it into the story. For example, a lighthouse fog horn probably wouldn't be heard in Nebraska and a damp swamp smell probably couldn't be experienced in the desert.
Seasons are easier - just don't fall into the pitfall of cliches.
The easiest thing to remember about setting a sense of place for your audience - remember they haven't been in your head while you've created or experienced your story. You need to let them into that world.
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