Setting: Harder Than You’d Think

Of the three main elements of fiction–plot, characterization, and setting–setting is arguably the most challenging.  You might think otherwise.  My Howard County mystery series is, for example, set in Howard County, Maryland.  Where else?  The plots of the novels can’t be stated so simply, and the characters are (I hope) sufficiently complex as to defy such brief description.  So what could possibly be so hard about the setting?

There are several ways to answer that question.  To start with, setting is not monolithic: it has a surprising number of components.  Different writers spell it out in somewhat different ways, but let’s start with three key aspects of setting: where, when, and who.

  • In broadest possible terms, where involves universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, land or sea, every level of geopolitical territory imaginable, building, and room.  A location is not just a specific place but an entire conglomeration of nested locations.  Knowing that a character is in a room is not enough.  A room in a pricey high-rise condo in Manhattan is hardly the same as a room on a derelict spaceship drifting without fuel through the emptiness of intergalactic space .
  • When can involve historical era, season or time of year, time of day, and elapsed time (how long something has been going on, how long it’s been since something happened, how far apart in time two scenes are, etc.).  One might include the weather in this category, since it changes over time.  Some aspects of when may be constant (a whole story may take place in 1865), but some are ever-changing (the story may take place over the course of a month).
  • The who part of setting is distinct from characterization, involving socio-political culture (itself a complex of history, religion, tradition, etc.), ancestral influences, and population density.  It’s the human background and surround against and through which the characters move.

Another way of understanding the complexity of setting is to think about its interplay with the scenes in a story.  Except in the case of single-location stories (e.g., “In The Butcher Shop”), action is spread over a sequence of scenes which take place in a variety of places, times, and conditions.  The first of my Howard County mysteries, The Fibonacci Murders is naturally set in Howard County, but each scene is located in a particular place within the county: any of several houses, a shopping mall, a state park, the county police department’s Northern District Headquarters, and so forth.  The story unfolds over the course of a couple of weeks, with scenes set at different times of day and in different weather.  Indeed, some of the action in my second novel, True Death, reaches beyond Howard County, even to the Rocky Mountains.  Except in the simplest cases, setting is always changing, just as the plot and the characters are.

The interplay of setting with plot and characterization is more complex still, because setting can influence and even control those elements.  Imagine, for example, that your character must get to the top of a mountain to find an artifact necessary to saving the world.  The location and shape of the mountain will play a vital role in determining how easy or hard it will be for her to succeed.  Indeed, the mountain may render success impossible or even kill her.  Moreover, conditions on the mountain may influence her state of mind and thus her actions, or the experience of climbing may ultimately change her in some way.

Finally, setting can establish tone and mood, and may be used symbolically to reflect other aspects of a story.  I’m currently writing my third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, which sprang from a detail of setting: last January as I drove over the Francis Scott Key bridge on my way to work, I saw to my surprise that the water was nearly frozen over.  (In twenty years here I had never seen that happen.)  Cold weather permeates the novel and mirrors the spiritual state of certain characters in the book.

As you can see, then, setting is neither simple nor easy to get right.  It should be treated as a dynamic element of a story, just as plot and characters are.  In reality, all elements of a story interact with each other, setting included.  Otherwise, you don’t really have a story at all.

Show and Tell

In fiction, exposition is the stuff a writer writes to explain things the reader needs to know but probably doesn’t.  Exposition is necessary in almost every story, but it comes at a price: it’s boring. Really boring.

Wait, let me rephrase that.  Handled badly, exposition is really boring.

Boring exposition is the bane of inexperienced writers, and we’re all inexperienced early in our writing careers.  Fortunately, boring exposition is easy to spot, even in your own writing.  Here are the warning signs:

  • You step into omniscient narrator mode to explain historical or technical background to the reader.
  • One of your characters stops what they’re doing to explain things you want the reader to know, even if the other characters already know all about it.

Another word for exposition is “telling.”  The best remedy for boring exposition is to follow this cardinal rule of writing: “Show, don’t tell.” The difference between showing and telling is basically the difference between action and stagnation.  Showing is active, telling is stagnant, and that’s why poorly-handled exposition is boring.  While you’re expounding, nothing is happening.

Simple example:

John was a selfish guy, and whiny, too.

That’s telling.  So’s this:

Mary thought that John was a selfish guy, and she hated how whiny he could be.

But this is showing:

“Those chocolates sure look good,” Mary said hopefully.

John clutched the bag to his chest.  “Forget it! These are mine!”

“Not even one?  Please?”

Shaking with anger, he snapped, “You always want what I have! Why can’t I ever have anything for myself?”

Or suppose you’re writing a science fiction novel in which a device known as a gurfragulator plays an important role.  The gurfragulator (as you’ve worked it out) is based on relativistic quantum feedback chaos (which you’ve also worked out).  You want to make sure the reader understands both the theory and the device before it’s used, so you lovingly detail it over the course of a page.

Stop.  Don’t.

Okay, instead of that, John and Mary find themselves on a disintegrating space ship.  Their only hope of escape lies with the gurfragulator.  John is about to throw the switch, but your readers don’t yet know what it does or how it works, so before he throws the switch, he prepares Mary for it by telling her everything about it.  She responds, “Yes, I know, just throw the switch!”

Please,  please stop.  Do it this way, instead:

John threw the switch, and immediately Mary felt like her body was being turned inside out.  Spacetime boiled around them.  Objects stretched in more dimensions than she could perceive, passed clear through each other, fragmented and reformed again and again.  She had no sense of time.  It could have been a moment or a century of burning pain, and then it was gone, leaving barely as much as a memory, and John and Mary were no longer on the derelict ship.  But God alone knew where they were.

That’s active, and now that we’ve seen the machine in action, we know fairly well what the gurfragulator does.  This is exposition insofar as it lets us know what the machine does, but it’s active exposition–we find out what the machine does because we watch it doing it.  It’s no longer boring.

It can take some creativity to make exposition active.  Long ago I wrote a scene set in a particular room in a particular house.  The scene opened with a description of the room and a character pacing back and forth in the room while pondering some problem.  It wasn’t a long description, but it didn’t work.  It was boring.  I rewrote it several times before hitting on a solution: I described the room by having the character’s shadow moving across walls and items in the room.

Action cures boredom.  Show, don’t tell, and exposition won’t be a problem.

How to Write

If you taught fiction writing, what would you tell your students about planning? Would you teach them to outline their plots? To determine who their characters are physically, psychologically, and historically? To lay out details of the setting? To only start writing once these preliminaries have been completed?

Or would you teach a more laid-back approach, allowing students to begin with an idea and develop plot, character, and setting in the course of writing?  Or would you employ a hybrid method?

Various writers approach their craft in all of these ways. None of us get by on zero planning, but some jump in without much sense of where we’re going. Others start with broad outlines, and still others lay detailed plans before writing a single word.

I’ve heard of writers spending many months planning novels and then writing them in a very short period of time.  I heard one novelist express annoyance at her editor’s insistence on outlines, saying, “I asked my editor, ‘Have I ever followed any outline I’ve given you?’ She said no. I said, ‘So why don’t I give you the outline from my last novel and just get on with writing this one?'”

I tend to be more like the latter than the former. When stuck I plan enough to get through the immediate issue, but I typically start with very little idea where I’m going or who my characters are.  I must see my characters in action before I have a good sense of them, and until I have a good sense of them the plot won’t come together.  Like the aforementioned author, I’m not much good at following detailed outlines.

But that’s just me. Every writer operates differently. I can’t advise you to work my way unless my way actually works for you. What I can advise is that likely your way will be some mix of planning and making it up as you go along. By experimenting to see what works, you’ll find your ideal approach.

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman