Checking for a sense of place when Beta Reading

Legends and folk tailsHow do you know when you have written a story with a vivid sense of time and place?

That’s where asking the right questions comes in.

The sense of place is what brings a story to life. It is what makes Hogwarts seem like a school for wizards and the Star Ship Enterprise a great ship where the great and good explore the unknown.

One of the things I value most when I write is a good quality beta reader. On the principle of doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, I compiled a list of questions to answer when beta reading.

The current list fills three sides of A4. There really are a lot of questions. Six of those questions are there to drill in on the sense of place.

Six key “sense of place” questions

I have identified six key questions when reporting back on the sense of location. They start by looking at the general description that is used in the writing but move on to more qualitative rather than quantitative topics after that.

  1. Are the descriptions vivid?
  2. Do the scenes give you an impression of time & place?
  3. Do the details enhance or are they distracting?
  4. Is the location just a backdrop?
  5. Does the location feel real?
  6. Do characters interact with or are affected by their environment?

These are not the same questions that a writer would ask themselves when writing. As a writer, my focus is on creating the effect of time and place while my beta reader is concerned only with how they experience that effect.

Any feedback that I consider a failure of time and space vividness would require me to go back to the craft of writing and ask “how can I make this more real?”

However, it is the feedback from questions like this that allows me to see how successful I have been in conveying what is in my head. Ideally, I want to put my crazy images inside your head and help you, my reader, to see the same madness I do. These questions help me to do that.

How to use these sense of place questions

The best way to use these questions is to simply indicate to your writer where they are strongest and weakest. Often times a simple yes or no for a short passage is enough for the writer to get a feel of what work might be outstanding.

Sometimes the relationship of the text tot he answers is more complex. Don’t be afraid to give the writer some more in-depth feedback when this happens.

When I am beta reading these days I like to reach for the full list of questions. In a writer’s group that is often too many questions. However, when I have the time to really get into a work you can bet I answer them all.

Can you think of any other helpful sense of place questions?

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