Justine: Fiction Fundamentals…Setting

Welcome to the fifth installment of Fiction Fundamentals. In this issue…Setting.

How would you describe this street? What are you writing? Who is your character? That and more will affect your description.

How would you describe this street? What are you writing? Who is your character? That and more will affect your description.

Setting serves an important purpose to ground the reader. It’s hard to get into a story when you don’t know where the character is or at what point in time the story takes place.

Margie Lawson maintains that within the first paragraph or two of every chapter or scene, you need to inform the reader of setting. Sometimes this isn’t necessary. If you start off each chapter with the location and year (for example, “London, March 1815”), then we have a pretty good idea of the where and when.

But establishing setting is more than just the where and when. There are other elements you can use to give your readers a sense of time and place. In her book “Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing,” Jessica Morrell introduces these fundamental elements of setting:

  • Locale – busy city or lazy country town? Highway or backroads? Farm or seaside?
  • Time of year – besides seasons, think of holidays that happen during those seasons. Are stores decorated for Christmas? Are flags out for 4th of July? You can also associate specific events (like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the death of a real person you’re referring to in your story).
  • Time of day – different times of day can evoke different moods for the reader. Creepy things tend to happen at dusk/night, not when the rooster is crowing.
  • Elapsed time – does your story happen in hours? Days? Months? Years?
  • Mood and atmosphere – how are your characters influenced by their setting? Think the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, when the tornado is coming.
  • Climate – Arctic cold or breezy Caribbean? Hot desert or rainy forest? How does this impact your characters, their mood, and their actions, or the actions of the story?
  • Geography – similar to climate.
  • Man-made geography – think bridges, dams, churches, castles, houses, etc. How does your character interact with these things? Use real places to make your story seem authentic.
  • Eras of historical importance – especially important when writing a historical, obviously. Oftentimes, events of the past can be linked to the plot.
  • Social/political/cultural environment – similar to historical eras, the mood/politics of the time can be drivers for your story or your character’s actions.
  • Population – small town with few people, or busy city teeming with life? How does your character adapt?
  • Ancestral influences – think the bayous of Louisiana, for example. Use language, food, culture, values, and attitudes to encompass this.

Beyond the Where and When

Some authors maintain that setting is like another character in your book. In many ways, they are right. You can use setting to deepen characterization, evoking specific feelings and emotions. Setting can also be used to reveal your character’s truth. I’ve talked about this before here.

For example, let’s take Hell. Probably not most folks’ favorite place, but if you’re the Dark One, it’s…well…heaven. How the Devil sees the setting of Hell is going to be vastly different from one of the poor souls suffering there. Using setting, you can play on that. For example, what better way to show how dark the Devil really is than to describe the paths of brimstone paved in human souls, how the burning smell makes him feel like he’s “home,” or how he loves seeing the soul of a suffering man (or women) beg him for mercy. (Forgive me if I’m messing up details of hell…I’ve never been, obviously, and I don’t much get into the heaven/hell stuff, but it’s a fitting example.)

In my WIP, I’m reworking the entire book, and this time, I’m putting more of a focus on setting. Susannah is not used to the thrills (or threats) of polite society and the haute ton, and she’s certainly not prepared for the outlandish and provocative dress, the luxurious fabrics of ladies’ gowns, or the ostentatious décor in some of the London townhomes. It’s not only intimidating, but it’s overkill, especially for her. That’s not the kind of person she is or what she values. Therefore, when describing these scenes from her perspective, I need to make sure I’m seeing it through her eyes, not just the eyes of an omniscient narrator, or the eyes of Nate’s sisters, who, for the most part, live for that sort of thing.

Avoid Teleporting or Transmogrifying

One thing to be cautious of when describing setting or how your character is interacting with it: no teleportation or transmogrification (Calvin and Hobbes fans may get this right away). What I mean by that is while the movie of your book may be playing in your mind, you have to make sure the words you write down reflect how those characters are moving and interacting with aspects of setting as you see it happen in your mind-movie.

For example, I read a contest entry once in which the main character was outside on a balcony overlooking a bay. That’s where the character existed in the movie that I created in MY mind based on the author’s description. However, a half-page later, the character was inside a bedroom (she was checking out an apartment to potentially move into). Um…how’d she get from the balcony, which was near the kitchen, to the bedroom? Teleportation? The author gave us no clue that the character had moved around, and it was jarring to find out she’d gone somewhere else.

There were other things that moved around in that book…paperwork, food, etc. While it all may have made sense in the writer’s mind, because she saw it happen in her mind-movie, it didn’t make sense for those of us who were only privy to her words. For the most part, if the character is interacting with stuff in your mind-movie, you should clue in the reader.

I’ve read other contest entries where things change. One minute, the tablecloth is white. Later on, it’s blue. Or a purse changes from a clutch to a shoulder bag. I refer to this as transmogrification – kind of like how Calvin and Hobbes used to change themselves or other things into something completely different. Readers notice, so be sure to pay attention to the details of setting, whether it’s how you’re describing a room, a street, or the clothing a character is wearing.

Good Description is Great, but Too Much is…Too Much

While you need to make sure to give your readers lots of details to make the setting seem real and to explore the character’s interpretation of it in order to affect the mood of the story, you can provide too much. So remember:

  • Don’t overdo it. Keep your description of the setting focused on what is most important or what would be best to create a mood or feeling, or enhance characterization. Doing lots of research on a setting is great, but overwhelming the reader with every little detail you picked up will dilute the impact of your story (and may have your reader abandoning your book).
  • Don’t dish it out all at once. Once you’ve figured out the important setting details, don’t blurt it all out like you’re writing a police report (unless you are actually writing a police report). Think Hansel and Gretel and the breadcrumbs. Don’t drop the whole loaf of bread on the trail where it begins. Dole out the details in little bits, crumb by crumb, with each one serving to hook, rather than overwhelm, the reader.

I hope these tips have helped spark some ideas of ways you can make your settings pop. What other tidbits do you have to share?

3 thoughts on “Justine: Fiction Fundamentals…Setting

  1. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned over the years is to pick out one or two salient details and let the reader fill in the rest. (Got that from a Stephen King essay on descrbing setting.) The act of adding her bit to the scene, of engaging her own imagination, really helps your reader connect to your work. She needs to invest to become truly engaged, and if you describe every detail of a scene, you deprive her of the chance to do that.

  2. The first time I paid attention to that “Cairo, 1945” technique was when I first watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I fell in love with it! I found it supremely helpful in a recent story I wrote. I wound up adding a lot of the details in the paragraph, but just having that at the top of the page reminded me of what I needed to get on the page. I’m not sure if I’ll leave it in or not.

    I think one can’t depend on it to carry the weight — a lot of readers will skip chapter titles and headings of this sort. But I do think it’s useful. I think I’m going to leave it in; there seems to be a bit of confusion as to whether I’m talking 1933 or 1977, and that confusion seems to extend to the stuff I’m using as research — a lot of historians and others draw parallels to those two times for that particular setting.

    I’m one of those people who like a good setting. It distinguishes your book from everything else on the market, and it also shapes and transforms all of your characters. They react to each other, of course, but they come from their environment.

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