In my last post on the Dirty Birdies blog, Where am I?, I put my own spin on the month’s theme, settings. Because I don’t name the towns and cities in which my books are set, or even the exact country, ‘setting’ isn’t something I’ve ever put much thought into. Not when it comes to the bigger picture.
The smaller picture, however, is a different story, and there’s a rule I’ve learned which might help other writers ground their stories’ settings, whether they name the cities in which they’re set or not. I know, no-one likes rules, but give this one a chance:
The rule of three.
It can be applied to many things in writing, not just setting; for instance, your characters’ physical appearance. But it’s a good rule for making your reader see what you’re writing about.
Never mention more than three things when you’re describing the appearance of a place (or person). Why no more than that? Because then you run the risk of it becoming a laundry list of details. “The room was small and there was a table in the middle of it and the table was made of dark wood and it stood on a red carpet and there was a chair in one corner and…” Okay, you can stop yawning, now.
We all know what wooden tables look like. We all know red carpets – maybe not as well as the Queen! We all know chairs. But describe what makes the setting of your book stand out.
Does the table have a scratch on it which came about in an unusual way? Was the carpet dyed red to mask a bloodstain after a heinous crime was committed? Okay, maybe that one was a bit far out, but this is me you’re talking to.
Is there a tear in the wallpaper? Describe that rather than its colour. Don’t describe the floorboards – mention the one that’s a bit more worn than the others and might mask a secret compartment underneath.
Sticking to the rule of three and making those three things unusual will intrigue your readers and keep them coming back for more. You don’t have to pick three things, but try not to go over this number, so as not to overload the reader.
And anyone who doesn’t follow this rule gets a spanking from Liz Silver. So there.
So, in conclusion…what details stick in your mind from your favourite books? It would be interesting to discuss what simple things authors referred to, which stood out because they were described in an unusual way.