This is part of a series of exercises I am doing with my writing group and are aimed to improve specific aspects of your writing.
This exercise is about using the character’s environment to give more insight into the character’s world view. Normal setting description which is set apart from the POV is too often bland, cold, and fails to enhance the reader experience. I’ll show you examples of what I mean.
First of all, the exercise:
Choose a public setting. For our group, it was the mall. Write a short beginning to a story (200 words or so) that tells us what brought the character to that setting, uses their POV of the environment to tell us more about that character, and set a tone for the writing (i.e. mystery, thriller, romance). No dialogue. Internal monologue is fine. Take 15 to 20 minutes on this one.
Example 1. (gumshoe detective style)
I don’t want a new pair of shoes, but when things wear away and cause too much pain, there’s a breaking point. Eventually, enough is enough, and no matter how shiny and comfortable they were a lifetime ago, they just aren’t those things you once knew, the things you were excited over, the things you wanted to last forever, but you always knew they wouldn’t.
The mall echoes with shoes, people bustling about, pretending a sale means value, or clean fabric means a fresh start. Others mope and wander, buying what fits because they’ve settled into an existence they never wanted, but are too weak to escape.
Kids screaming and crying, like they do. Old folks chomping on soft sandwiches from the food court, slurping coffee, talking about what surgery is keeping Fred from this week’s gathering.
The young optimistic writers milking the free wi-fi, staring at a blank page, then crushing candy on their phone like three stars is an achievement, like feeling the brief high of a level completed means their life has improved, like they’re better people now, like that novel can practically write itself because getting what you want is so damn easy.
I walk into the shoe store, ready to meet the next footwear I’d eventually toss into the garbage, and there she was.
You easily see how bitter and grim this guy’s outlook is on the world and that it all stems from a broken relationship and failed dreams.
He looked at his phone again. Nothing. He checked his last text. Maybe I was too harsh.
The coffee line at the mall bistro was never busy. He came here to get away, though it was no oasis. Run down, old tile floor, temporary walls where businesses with forgotten names once stood.
We used to bring the kids here for pictures with Santa. Now there’s a poutinerie instead of a Christmas display. Fries for tinsel. Gravy instead of fake snow. A guy in a chef’s hat where awkward teens in elf costumes guided restless children through the queue.
He hadn’t bought a real tree in ages. Last year, the fake one stayed in storage.
He checked his phone. Nothing.
Large coffee. Black. Rebecca always drank it black. He was mounds of sugar and a generous pour of cream for years, until she put him on a diet.
This one has less of the MC’s opinion and interpretation of the environment, but the way I describe the environment is still catered to him and how his view of the same place has changed. Its decay reflects the decay in his marriage.
Now I’ll show you an example where I describe the setting, but it doesn’t give us any insight or integration with the character and their POV.
Example 3. (the wrong way)
Nick went to the old mall for a new watch.
The selection of stores had diminished in recent years. It was quiet this time of day, with the occasional walking group or young mothers taking strollers through empty aisles and quiet corridors. The sound of the fountain echoed over the few patrons, a lullaby for the store clerks who rested behind the counters.
The one watch shop covered the spectrum of wrist wear, from cheap plastic to diamond-encrusted watches that demanded to be referred to as “time pieces.” Nick hovered over the glass case somewhere between the two price points.
While the description isn’t bad, I get a better idea of the mall than I do of Nick, other than that he has a modest budget for his new watch.
All the best to you. Happy writing. Come back for more exercises, and please Subscribe and follow.