Use accurate details to develop your setting

The small details you include in your narrative make a huge difference to how the reader perceives the setting. It’s one thing to say a character made a phone call. Is her iPhone connected by Bluetooth to her car’s stereo so she can make the call hands free? Is she dialing a rotary phone and waiting forever for the dial to spin back after a 9? Does she lift the earpiece of a candlestick phone and ask the operator to connect her?

These two items on the cklst are related—pick the one that fits your novel:

If the story is set in the past, historical details are accurate.

If the story is set in the future, scientific details are plausible.

Both of these points require doing your research. But don’t let research keep you from writing. Be willing to stick in a note (could you telephone Paris from London in 1890?) and fix it later when you learn that no, the submarine cable between England and France wasn’t laid until 1891.

steampunk telephone

Photo © 3355m •

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There’s more to setting than time and place

The other day I wrote about the importance of establishing your setting early. The location and date are key pieces of data for readers to have, but setting encompasses a great deal more.

The culture and mood are evoked through description and character reactions.

Culture is a vital piece of worldbuilding, whether you’re writing a contemporary romance or a science fiction thriller. Of course, the topic of culture is itself deep water, as it encompasses many things. But for purposes of this discussion, consider the following and how they affect your storyworld: Continue reading

When you want to conceal the setting

Last time we compared minimalist fiction with the failure to provide adequate setting details. But sometimes, a writer may want to hold back setting details to provide a plot twist later. Like minimalism, this is a difficult technique to do well. It’s also been done before—a lot—so you have to ensure you’re doing it in a way that’s original.

The fancy name for this technique is “concealed environment.” Because it’s so often abused, it’s also earned a couple of less flattering epithets. The Turkey City Lexicon calls it “Jar of Tang,” and George Scithers, a former editor of Asimov’s magazine, dubbed it “Tomato Surprise.”

The TV Tropes entry on Tomato Surprise is especially enlightening about just how often this technique gets mishandled. Continue reading

Avoid blank stage syndrome

If readers don’t have enough sensory detail to go on, they can fail to engage with the story. Not knowing the story setting is very frustrating for the reader.

In The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke says a scene with inadequate setting details “is like one of those experimental theatrical productions with just gray geometric shapes on the stage.” Of course, those theatrical productions are done that way deliberately. So let’s be clear: we are talking about two different things.

stage curtain

Photo by Dominik Gwarek •

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Ground Your Readers in the Setting

Setting may not be the most important aspect of a novel, but it is critical to a great reader experience. Some genres are almost entirely defined by their settings. Regency romances are set in England during the early 1800s. Westerns are usually set west of the Mississippi in the late 1800s. Southern Fiction is set in the southeastern part of the U.S., but not so far south that you reach Disney World.

The setting you choose for your novel is an integral part of the story. That’s why Setting makes it into my list of Primary Elements. The setting of your book will affect many other elements. A story set in modern-day Pakistan will be very different from a story set in medieval Europe, even though both might be about arranged marriages. Continue reading

Finer Points of Pacing

Let’s quickly wrap up Pacing so we can move on to Setting. Here are the last few items in the Pacing segment of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

Excessive step-by-step description of actions is avoided.

When you describe each individual movement the character makes, you slow pacing to a crawl. For example:

She walked across the room to the desk and pulled open a drawer. Grasping one of the empty envelopes inside, she drew it out and laid it on the blotter.

Compare with:

She took an envelope from the desk drawer.

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Logical Flow Propels Pacing

As we look at this item about pacing, it may sound familiar, because it is related to plot:

Events flow logically in cause-and-effect relationships.

That is, each scene doesn’t just happen after the prior scene, it happens because of the prior scene.

When events flow from one to the other in a cascade of causes and effects, you have a plot that is profluent. We did discuss this idea before, especially under the organic model proposed by Steven James in his book Story Trumps Structure. Continue reading