Friday, December 16, 2011

What is Your Novel Missing? A Sense of Time, A Sense of Place

Hey there! This is the final installment of this series, one that I still struggle with and have since I started writing. Fortunately, I recognize the problem more readily now, and can fix it before I get out of control. (If you missed any other posts in this series, you can check out Senses, Deep POV, Hooks, and Strong Verbs/Unique Words.)

Today we're talking about what I like to call Grounding Your Characters in the Scene. This is basically giving your reader a foundation for the scene, aka, the setting.

There are two areas where this can be an issue. At the beginning of a scene or during a scene. Yep, simple.

Pretend I just started a new scene in my story, and you're the reader:

Harper knew it was her fault. She might bat her long lashes and flash that coy smile but anyone with half a brain could see she was behind the whole thing.

So fine, if she wanted to play her game, he would play one of his own.

First, he'd steal the colorful little gnome from her front garden. Yep, sneak it off one night never to be seen again. Then he'd...

All right, I could go on with all of Harper's thoughts about how to get back at this mystery woman. But the point here is that this scene has been started in Harper's head and hasn't ventured out once. Sure, it's fine to start off a scene with a character's thoughts or dialogue. But don't take too long to ground your characters in this setting. Without that, you leave your readers hanging.

They don't know where your characters are or when they're there (how much time after the previous scene).

It can be a simple change, like:

Harper knew it was her fault. She might bat her long lashes and flash that coy smile but anyone with half a brain could see she was behind the whole thing.

He peered through the kitchen curtains at his neighbor, grinding his teeth. She pruned her roses with delicate snips that mocked him, like she had no idea what she'd done this morning.

Fine, if she wanted to play her game, he would play one of his own...

See? We're giving the reader a sense of where Harper is, and even when, so they have a foundation for this scene.

Now, this can also be a problem when there's too much exposition, or during a scene when you either have several paragraphs of character thought or even a long run of dialogue. If your characters are sitting at a restaurant eating and bantering back and forth, give them a break here and there. Like:

"Putting your elbows on the table is so rude," Maggie mentioned, mischief in her eyes.

"No ruder than chewing with your mouth open," Shawn countered.

"I don't chew with my mouth open!"

"Yes, you do." He reached for his napkin, lowering his voice when a quick glance around the room showed several customers glaring at him.

This isn't the most amazing example, but the point is, every once in awhile, you need to ground the characters in their setting. Make them part of their setting, even have them interacting with their setting. There will be scenes where your characters will be walking together or driving together, some kind of movement and you need to keep your reader updated. You don't want your readers to say, "How did they get from the mall to her house?"

Okay, so when you're doing your edits, make sure you're not in your character's head for too many paragraphs at once, and make sure your readers know where your characters are here and there, especially if they're doing a lot of moving around. Simple as that!

How about you? Are you like me and start off a scene with a whole lot of character thought before grounding your character in the setting? I'd love to know I'm not the only one!


Cindy is a Colorado native, living near the mountains with her husband and three beautiful daughters. She writes contemporary Christian romance, seeking to enrich lives with her stories of faith, love, and a touch of humor.

To learn more about Cindy, visit her at her personal blog,


Embrace said...

Thanks for explaining it so well Cindy. I have heard lots of talk about 'grounding characters' and 'talking heads', only I didn't really know what to look for to fix it.
Now I do. Thanks.

So ... you're not alone!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Cindy, great way to "show" how to ground our characters in their settings. Some of this I do pretty well. I am, however, going to have to get out of their heads sooner after beginning a new scene in some places. If you have suggestions for that, I'd love them. :)

This has been a great series!

Keli Gwyn said...

Cindy, you are not alone. I'm editing a story now and found a couple of chapter opening scenes that were continuations of the ones before that I'd left hanging. I realized hadn't set the new scenes, which could leave a reader who'd put the book down after the previous chapter and come back to it wondering where the characters were, so I added a line of narration or a beat to let the reader know.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Yay, Jodi! I'm glad I have some company :) Simple fix, right? And the more we're aware of it, the easier it is to avoid.

Hi Jeanne, that's my biggest challenge, too, getting out of their heads faster at the start of the scene. The first example I gave in the post does just that. It's interrupting those internal thoughts (though you can still keep them) to smoothly add in a sense of setting or time. Even something brief to say, this is where my character is while they're thinking this.

It's easy to do, right, Keli? Especially when you're writing, you end one chapter (like you said, with a hook) and then keep writing to the next chapter. We, as writers, know what's going on but you're right, the reader might not. Hope you have a great weekend!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Very nicely put, Cindy, in simple terms with examples! I love examples! LOL.

I still have to go back and check this in my scenes - it's easy to miss.


Cindy R. Wilson said...

He he, Sue. I love examples, too. I'm always reading other posts, light bulbs going off and saying, "Yep, that's exactly what I do (or don't do)."

Yes, these things are easy to miss, especially plodding along in our first drafts. Good luck!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Cindy, good information. My problem is skimping on the descriptors. Critters often say to me, where is your character? Need to find a way to detect this problem myself in my own work before some poor soul has to read it.:)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hi Mary, I know exactly what you're talking about. I think this is something that comes over time, after your critique partners point it out more than once. You start to get to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and work to make those weaknesses stronger and easier for you to recognize. Have a good weekend!

JoAnne Potter said...

You are right. This is so important. We think we are being mysterious and we are just crouching in confusion. Grounding our characters is so important.