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Know When to Include Scenery and Context in Your Children's Book

A children's book reader who is not getting enough information about a main character’s whereabouts won’t necessarily be able to tell you that’s the reason he’s not enjoying your book. But he will feel a certain lack of connection to the character — which is the kiss of death.

If a main character isn’t engaging, children will put down the book and never pick it up again. If you don’t explore contexts at all, your reader may feel lost, as if the characters are floating around, homeless, groundless, foundationless — for even a character on the run from home has to come from somewhere, pass through somewhere else, and be headed somewhere.

With middle-grade novels and longer books involving many different scenes and chapters in which the main character moves from place to place, you need to make sure your readers know something about where the characters are.

When your story begins, make sure it takes place somewhere and that you give the somewhere at least one fabulously descriptive sentence within the first few paragraphs of the book. As your book progresses and the main character moves from place to place in each scene, make sure you have at least one descriptive sentence about each new context.

Board books, picture books, and other formats for the youngest readers don’t necessarily require descriptive sentences establishing context because the illustrations usually do that job for you. In these cases, identifying home, school, or the park as such is sufficient.

You can include scene-building sentences or phrases, but what you don’t need to do is go into great detail. If you do go into great detail regarding scenery when writing a shorter format book, you just use up your word count and then a lot of those words will get axed when the illustrator is hired.

So although you can establish scenery and context in picture books by using words, don’t go on and on about what the reader sees — it’s the illustrator’s job to do that.

If there are no pictures to tell readers where they are, and if you can say yes to any of the following seven examples, you need to describe the scenery.

  1. When place figures prominently

    Every story needs living, breathing characters — people, animals, or anthropomorphized objects such as the dancing teapot and candelabra in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — to create reader interest and move the action forward.

    But sometimes, the place in which a story occurs can be almost as important as the characters that inhabit it — and therefore deserving of a level of description sufficient to provide complete context and scenery.

    For example, a mystery story involving the inhabitants of a haunted house requires the description of the house. In the same way, a story involving a character who is an explorer means you need at least a brief description of each place explored.

  2. When the place isn’t just incidental

    The setting of your story is far from incidental when it’s not just a starting place for the character or an ending place in the action.

  3. When description of place doesn’t interrupt flow of action

    Sometimes, tossing in a description of the place where the action is occurring can interrupt the flow of the story you are meticulously crafting. When that happens, your reader may become momentarily confused or disoriented or may simply lose interest in your story — outcomes you do not want as an author.

    Suppose your main character is plummeting down a mineshaft, mere seconds away from certain disaster. This is probably not a good time to describe what California in the year 1849 looked like. It is, however, a good time to describe the thoughts going through your character’s head as the bottom of the shaft fast approaches.

    How do you know whether your description of a place interrupts the flow of your story? A sure sign is if you feel like putting it in parentheses — or if you find yourself moving it around because you are not sure where it really should go. Our advice? When in doubt, leave it out.

  4. When description of context adds something measurable

    Sometimes, adding a description of place or context in a story isn’t absolutely essential in and of itself, but it adds something measurable to the mood or power of the scene or to the main character. In cases such as this, you may very well want to include the description.

    Context is measurable if it moves the plot forward by providing information that causes the character to move his feet. Or if the description creates the mood you want to set for the scene. Or if it adds flavor and spice that really set the tone for the scene.

  5. When you must mention an exotic locale

    Not to sound America-centric or xenophobic, but the great preponderance of readers of books written in English do come from North America, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s important to consider your probable audience when dropping a reference to an exotic locale.

  6. When beginning a novel and a specific place is mentioned

    Chances are you’ve read a zillion books that start off with a lovely description of a place in the first paragraph or two and then plunge right into the action. There are a couple of good reasons for that. First, when your reader encounters your reference to a specific place, his curiosity will be piqued — he’ll want to know more about it.

    Second, setting the scenery and context at the very beginning of a longer story quickly transports the reader out of the day-to-day reality of his current environment and into the fantasy world created by the book’s author. Indeed, this is part of the magic of any well-written book — to transport readers to new places, to meet new people, to see new environments.

  7. In a new scene where place is used to transition

    Not every story stays in the same place for the duration of a children’s book. In fact, more than a few stories start in one place and then move to one or more other places during the course of the action.

    When you end a chapter or scene in one place and start the next one in a new place, you need to tell readers where they’ve gone. If you don’t, they’ll feel lost and frustrated.

    Be sure to describe new scenes as your characters encounter them — your readers will appreciate it.

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