Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don't settle when it comes to setting

Every writer has a strong point, something that comes easy, something that rolls effortlessly off the tips of her fingers onto those keys.

For me, it's certainly not setting.

I was BORN to do radio, because I'm all about the dialogue. My poor characters will wind up floating in air, batting zingers back and forth like the Williams sisters at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, there's not much demand for radio plays these days.

Over the years I've learned to improve setting so that I'm not leaving my hero and heroine hanging -- literally. But it's something I have to consciously work on.

Some tips I've learned:

Setting's not passive: in order for setting to be organic to the story, so intertwined that you can't take it out, the characters have to interact with their surroundings. Don't just let them observe the kudzu. Let 'em get all tangled up in it and take a clumsy swan dive.

Setting's not one-dimensional: When your klutzy hero falls into that kudzu, make sure he's not just seeing a lot of green. Let him smell the damp powdery mold of the earth, let the rocks scrape his face (hey, the heroine can bandage him up later on!), let him spit out (in a manly, discreet way, naturally) the dirt he inadvertantly eats.

Setting's not convenient in the large economy size: Like dynamite and perfume, a little dab here and there of setting will do you. Long paragraphs of world-building will make me put down a book faster than almost anything save stilted dialogue. I admire authors who can work in the tiniest of details that tell so much about a scene. Back to the kudzu example, one or two sentences of it are sufficient. Any more, and the book starts to sound like a county extension agency pamphlet.

Setting's not just for narrative: Work details of setting into your dialogue, avoiding, of course, the painful as-you-know-Bob exchanges.

Setting's not just generic background: it's the skeleton of your entire story, what you hang the plot and the characters on, so you should treat it as though it is a character. What's its purpose? Why can't the story take place anywhere else? Until I can answer these questions, then my stories have a vague could-be-anywhere air about them. Once I know WHY my story has to be set in a certain place, and my heroine has to live in a certain house, drive a certain car, work for a certain sort of business, then I know my setting's job.

One of the best ways I learned how to improve my settings was to pull my keeper books off the shelf and read them, looking specifically at ways the writers integrated setting into the story. I never went so far as to mark them with a red pen (sacrilege, writing in a book that wasn't a text book or my personal Bible!), but I did keep an eye peeled for what tricks other writers used. And hopefully it's helped me.

So how do you handle setting? What tricks do you use?


Al said...

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Publish or Perish

prettyswirl said...

I am TOTALLY guilty of white room syndrome. I write lots of dialogue/action (lots of running and jumping and talking) and I need to figure out how to incorporate setting into that. Thanks for your post! Very helpful.

Cynthia Reese said...

Why, thank you, Al! That makes two awards in a week! Wow! Off to check it out!

Prettyswirl, glad I could help you out ... it's so hard to write when I'm focused on IMPORTANT things, like, yanno, what the characters are saying ... who cares if they are hanging around, just two talking heads? Works for ESPN and CNN! ;-)

Jamie D. said...

Ugh. Description is so not my thing. I'm getting better at it, but I have to constantly be mindful of the fact that I often consider "in the living room" a perfectly adequate description of where a conversation is taking place. I'm fine when it comes to adding in character description and's the big settings, like you say, that I suck at.

Anymore as I'm writing I'm often mumbling to myself "where are they" and "what does the room look like" or something of the sort, just to remind myself to document the setting. I'm getting better, but it's definitely counter intuitive for me. ;-)

Linda G. said...

Like you, I'm all about the dialogue. Sometimes I wonder if I should try writing a screenplay. Still, it's fun to go back and add in the small touches that bring the setting to life.

Kelly Breakey said...

For me it's staying inside settings that I know personally. I use the southeast for my settings because no matter where I set them up at I can get there pretty quickly if I have to in order to do the research that needs to be done. I hope that as I progress and grow I will venture, even to areas I am unfamiliar with, but for now. I stay close to home.

Mia said...

Thank you so much for this post! I suck at description and setting. Give me dialogue to write, any day. I don't describe setting much in the first draft, because I think the setting should fit the story/character/scene, and I usually can't figure that out until the ending.

My first book? Oh. The. Horror. First I set it in California. Then I switched it to Tennessee. Oh, wait, then it was in Indiana... so there's another reason I wait to establish the setting until the second draft/rewrites ;)

I recently did something kind of geeky for my book, but it helped me. See, I had my villain breaking into my MC's house, and she was hiding in the shadows. But then I couldn't figure out where the back door was, and how could he be in the living room so fast? So I drew a detailed floor plan for my MC's house. Geeky, yes. Also a lifesaver for this girl, though ;)

LR said...

I liked this post a lot.

Setting is important to me in what I read and what I write. To capture a location, I try to go there myself (that's important) and try to notice something that I could only have noticed by actually being there (a smell, a detail). Setting shouldn't include details that could be just anywhere. Be specific. What sets this place apart?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all these advice. I tend to overlook setting, even when I'm writing fantasy/sci-fi. These are very helpful -- I'm definitely keeping them in mind in the future. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I remember reading books that had miles of description about ancient flowers and lovely architecture. Or ancient architecture and lovely flowers. Obviously, it didn't stick. :)

Weaving it in, I find, comes most naturally when I have a strong feel for the setting before I even put pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Sometimes it doesn't happen that way, and I have to do a little immersive setting imagining during the edits. Otherwise I'm totally in the white room! :)

Mary McDonald said...

Thanks for the great reminders.

Julie Musil said...

I keep a notebook with me and jot down setting notes. I file them in a setting notebook to refer to later. That way I get the sight, sound and smells all on paper!

Jayne said...

AGH that tree!!!

I am a big fan of settings - it is important to know where characters are, although I don't like to over-kill with description. :)

Cynthia Reese said...

Jamie D, I'm with you on the mumbling, "AAARGH, they're in the living room, isn't that enough?!"

Linda G, guess that means we're both drama queens?? Okay, I'll be the princess, and you get to be the queen, how about it?

Kelley, I'm with you -- one of the hardest books I had to write was set partly in Oregon, and if it hadn't been for Tawna Fenske and some friends of hers, I would have been hopelessly lost. I sort of assume the whole WORLD is flat, yanno?

Mia, I do house plans, too! Er, that's not geeky, is it?

LR, that authenticity is so important -- and you're right. It's the keeper detail that makes people know you've been there.

Sandy Shin, I look at sci-fi and fantasy and I just am amazed at all the world building writers have to do. They have to DESCRIBE weird things so they seem commonplace. There are no hooks in the reader's brain to hang some concepts ... amazing!

Susan, too funny on the ancient flowers and lovely architecture!

Mary -- you're welcome! But your blog is a treasure trove of reminders that are just as great, if not better!

Jayne, I know -- it's all about that mythical critter balance, isn't it?? Blast that critter!

Cynthia Reese said...

Julie, I think your idea of the notebook is great! There are so many times that I think, "Oh, yeah, I'll remember that sight/sound/smell/feel," and then ... of course I don't.

But knowing me? I'd lose the notebook!

Sara Best said...

Great post Cynthia!

I too struggle with conveying setting and you give some great tips here that I'm going to keep in mind.

Karla Nellenbach said...

great post! My problem with setting is that sometimes I get so into describing the scene, personifying the background that I can go on and on and on. Yes, I over-share. It's a disease, really. Don't worry. I'm on medication for it and going to the occasional meeting. :)

Anonymous said...

THIS is great!