Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sticking up for Setting

I've been thinking a lot about setting recently ... before I could get started on my new project, I wrestled a lot with the various settings. For me, it was essential that I "get" the setting, because I just can't go anywhere unless I know where it is. I wanted dark, dank, and smelly. I wanted a landscape that literally oozed ominousity.

I think setting gets a raw deal a lot of times. We hear again and again how we have to cut exposition and trim unnecessary words. And too often, I think this is translated into, "Cut the crap out of your setting." 

It's true that long, purply paragraphs about sunsets and frothy waves are often wasted space, but there's another side to this story. Your setting is nothing less than the personality of your story. What would Wonka be without his factory? Dumbledore with Hogwarts? Jack without that island and its pink rocks? Inman without that damn mountain? These settings aren't just wasted paragraphs of exposition and adjectives ... they hover over the whole story, they breathe life into the events by assuming the characteristics of the story itself.

To me, this is how setting should be done. I want setting to be another, invisible character. I want it to tell me something, not merely exist as a backdrop. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, either. A setting is a few well-chosen details. When you describe a house, it might be less important how many feet wide it is, or how many windows it has, or what color it is ... than whether or not the gutters are sagging and overflowing with last fall's leaves. I want it to say something about the people who live there, not the mortgage officer who approved their loan.

Because ultimately, your setting is an extension of the characters themselves. The details they notice are the ones that make it into your book, and those are the details that define these people in the physical space they inhabit. It strikes me that setting isn't an afterthought, or an annoyance ... how you choose to describe your setting is more than physical -- it's central to the characters themselves and it hangs over your entire story like a vapor (my new favorite word).

So I'm sticking up for settings, and I'm sticking up for writers who take time to think hard about the little details that matter in their settings, and then take the time to include these important clues to the world they're creating.


Mark Terry said...

I struggle with this quite a bit, although I wonder if it isn't partly why I've gotten more interested in SF lately. Setting is such an integral part of SF and even fantasy that the writer HAS to deal with it. There's not a huge need for a writer to go to great length to describe, say, Manhattan to me unless they're going to show me something I haven't already seen a billion times on TV or movies or when I was last there. But some planet somewhere else...

Of course, historicals drive me crazy this way, so who knows?

I do think that JK Rowling's magical world was a great place to be and far more interesting than the drab muggle world she described. Whenever I read one of her books I couldn't wait to get Harry out of the Dursleys an onto the Hogwart's Express.

LurkerMonkey said...

This is a topic dear to my heart, I have to say. Did you ever read Rebecca? I know I've brought it up before, but I think that Manderly is probably the best example I'm aware of where the setting itself is a character. It's just beautiful.

My thing is that setting should have personality. Even in SF and fantasy, where setting is such a big deal like you say, I find that authors sometimes fall in love with their own vision a tad much. So we get long explanations of technology or magic, and how all this stuff works and how cool it is, but the author fails to give the setting any essential personality. It's whiz-bang neato, but not moving or frightening or whatever.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Lurker:
Diary of a Blues Goddess would not have been a book without the house, haunted and full of history. The Roofer would be empty without Hell's Kitchen and the gritty edge. I think you nailed (!!!) your new setting. And me, I'm not much of one for STARTING with setting . . . but I got goosebumps as you opened your book. So bravo!

Jude Hardin said...

I try to incorporate setting into action whenever possible.


Venetian blinds covered the bedroom window.

To me, straight description like that is boring.

I climbed out of bed and peeked through the blinds.

That's more interesting, I think. The character is actually doing something, and the reader is intrigued by what s/he sees on the other side of the window.

This is a very simple example, of course, but I think you get the idea.

Mark Terry said...

That's usually my recommendation for character description actually. I call it active description.

Not, he had red hair, but

He ran his fingers through his red hair.

Jude Hardin said...


Hmm. I don't really like it when I see things like that, because it's obvious the writer has set up some sort of inconsequential action merely to sneak some description in. I caught myself doing something similar earlier today, and I ended up deleting it, LOL.

But I really like the term active description. I'm stealing that. :)

spyscribbler said...

Setting as character rocks. It's one of my favorite elements!

LurkerMonkey said...

Hmm. I guess my feeling is that I would only include the blinds or the red hair if they were necessary to either evoke a certain mood in the setting or to advance the plot somehow. It it's not emotionally resonant, but purely descriptive, then my instinct is to cut ...

Jude Hardin said...


Yeah, the blinds are only important in that the character had to peek through them to see out the window. They could just as well have been curtains, or shades, or a Sponge Bob crib blanket stained with baby vomit.

Most people have something covering their bedroom windows, though. This character happened to have blinds. :)

Melanie Avila said...

I have a hard time with setting because I hate too much description. My writing tends to be very sparse and I have to add more in later drafts.

The details they notice are the ones that make it into your book...

I love this. It's so true, and a great way to consider what to include.

LurkerMonkey said...


This happens to me too, sometimes, where I get so excited to keep things moving that I start skipping big chunks of information. This is part of the reason I try to limit myself on the days I'm actively writing, so I can stay focused.