I’m working on a short story in which the main characters travel a great distance in a short amount of time. They also experience a variety of different landscapes. My aim is to quickly acclimate the reader to each new place through the narrator’s perspective using sensory details. So my question is this: besides “show, don’t tell” details, how can I transition between scenes and scenery in a seamless way so as to not confuse my reader?
Multiple landscapes in short stories are hard! But I think you’ve already figured that out. You have a limited number of words to use to tell your story in a short format, and a lot of times that leaves world building to the wayside in favor of character or plot. If the setting is very important to the story, you’ll end up sacrificing details somewhere else. It’s all part of the delicate balance of good storytelling.
Character plus setting equals words
Adding settings and characters can start to really ramp up your word count if you’re not careful. Each time you change setting, you have to use new words to explain where your characters are and how they got there, to help the reader feel the realness of the place that the characters have ended up. Say you’re writing a 6,000 word short story with 4 different settings, and say it takes approximately 750 words to show your reader each setting… that’s fully half your words used up to setting! You can find out more about how to determine the length of the story you’re writing here.
If you have a short story whose format relies on the characters travelling through a variety of landscapes, and you don’t want your story’s setting to commandeer too much of your word count, you have to choose just the right details to convey the essence of each new place.
Setting the stage with specific details
Knowing which details to choose will help to avoid coming off too blandly generic (or “tell-y”). In Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer’s epic guide to creating imaginative fiction, he writes, “Good and strategic uses of specific details convince the reader and do not seem jarring or unintentionally contradictory.”
When you’re deciding which specific details to include in your setting description, think about your main character and ask these questions:
- What is their experience of the world in each setting? How comfortable are they in each new setting?
- What would they immediately notice or be unfamiliar with? (Write about that!)
- What would they take for granted? (You can probably leave that off the page.)
Consider the challenge that each setting represents to your characters. How will they cope with the challenges presented by travelling across a desert or an ocean, or living on the moon?
Your audience is important
Also, consider your audience. What features of each setting will your target audience pick up on without you having to describe it? What aspects are they likely to need some guidance to understand? A child resident of the Arctic Circle will have a very different understanding of that landscape than an adult from a more tropical climate.
Smooth transitions between settings
As to the last part of your question–the way to not confuse your reader as you transition from setting to setting– I have two suggestions. Make sure that a) the reader knows the characters have switched settings (and how they got where they were going) and b) make each individual setting as distinct as possible. Since interplanetary travel is a key feature of the Star Wars series, George Lucas made his alien planets distinguishable based on their environments: Tatooine – desert; Hoth – ice; and Endor – forest. Each one has unique characteristics that set it apart from the others and keep you from being confused about where the characters are in the story.
How to “Ask the Editor”
Send your questions to email@example.com. Limit yourself to a few paragraphs to introduce yourself and the problem at hand. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. And keep an eye out for opportunities to send in longer submissions for critique.
Elisabeth Kauffman is a freelance editor in California. Her favorite genres are YA fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. She regularly obsesses over board games, Doctor Who, and Harry Potter. Come share your ideas with her on Facebook and Twitter and on the web at www.writingrefinery.com. Also, check out her author website and her author page on Facebook.