Tag Archives: Setting

Pro-Tip: Setting

5 Oct

It’s important to ground your writing in a time and place. This isn’t just for fiction writers, either. Every discourse needs a context. It’s not enough just to say that someone is in Philly on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, that is a place and time, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about the larger scope of the scenario. Is this past, present, or future? Go beyond that, as well. If your character is in Chicago in the present, but your narrative flashes back three years to that time she visited Quebec, you’ll still need to tell the reader when NOW is and when THREE YEARS AGO was. Is NOW actually now, 2015? Or, is the NOW in your story 1955? From that point, the flashbacks and flashforwards will be greatly impacted. 2012 was a lot different than 1952. So, while visual (and other sensory) descriptions of your setting are very important in order for the reader to get a sense of what physically surrounds the characters, that setting isn’t just floating in some ambiguous time in history.

Example: Marley and Chris rounded the corner of 5th Avenue to hail a cab. It was a beautiful summer day, and there were lots of people about. Chris stepped to the littered curb and coolly signaled the yellow minivan. When it skimmed the sidewalk, leaves and papers rustled past. Marley approached, lost in thoughts of three years earlier. Not much around her had changed. The air smelled the same—hot, vaguely polluted, with mingled aromas of ethnic foods—and the buildings around her still stood watching in their fading brick skins. Beneath that, though, deeper, where the city had no jurisdiction over her thoughts, autumn was creeping in, and with it the rusty color-change of her feelings for Chris. Leaves drying before a fall.

Now, the paragraph above has a physical and geographical setting. It has a seasonal setting. It has sensory details about where they are currently, where they were three years before, and how that is impacting her emotionally. However, this paragraph would not be able to hold its own in a novel if this were the only indication of time and place. There are no markers to tell me when NOW and THREE YEARS AGO actually happened. The inclusion of a vehicle gives a better indication of NOW, but it still isn’t exact. We also can’t tell how old they are. Old enough to have been in a relationship for three years, but that still leaves a lot of options.
If this were a scene in the middle of a novel where those factors in question had already been established, there would, of course, be no need to repeat that information. If Marley frequently flashes back to three years ago, and that year was detailed in depth during the first flash back, it would be redundant to dig up those details every time. A casual reference of this kind would suffice.

The take-away, then, is situational. If you’re placing characters for the first time, the reader needs to know enough about that moment to ground them in the geography and era. You don’t want your readers imagining your futuristic, silicone body suit-wearing protagonist in a 1920s flapper dress. I assume. The pictures we imagine as we read are informed by what the author chooses to disclose. If you want a certain conclusion reached, or in this case a certain visual, lead the reader to it. Assess your situation scene by scene. Decide if you need that additional information or if it would be redundant to include it. Write accordingly.

And remember, this isn’t just for fiction despite my first example. A research paper, a piece of journalism, and editorial, a blog all need a context. It might be sufficient to say of a blog piece, “I’m on my couch with the cats writing this to you now.” A blog post will be time-stamped by the hosting website. Readers will know when NOW actually happened. An editorial on a great new restaurant might need more. “In order to miss the dinner crowd, I ate at Chez New Restaurant with my husband at 4pm. They just opened a week ago, which is a shame because opening a week earlier could have earned them the last of the summer vacationers, but I digress. We ordered the…” You get where I’m going with this. Without being overly detailed, the reader sees that I ate dinner, but early in the day, and that the restaurant is new as of the end of summer/early fall. Even without a specific date in the narrative, it gives a clear picture of the setting/season. I won’t bore you with more examples; the point is clear. Assess your scenario and the need-to-knows of your readers. Premeditate their questions and answer in advance by being detailed.

How do you ground your readers in a setting? I’d love to hear your methods in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Join me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 3

8 Nov

Essay-writing season is dwindling down and there are only four more weeks of classes left which means I get to share another set of tips and insights from the 2013 James River Writers Conference. In the third session I attended, Kathryn Erskine, Elizabeth Huergo, and Dean King, led by moderator Gigi Amateau, discussed creating settings. Here are the key points about making a vital and purposeful setting in fiction writing:

  • Setting is a character. It says, “I am the place where something has occurred.” It can be sparse in physical description while rich in other senses. It can have a personality of sorts that incites a certain type of reaction from human characters, and can even be the driving force behind  characters’ motivations. For example, a setting at a movie theater might act as an instigator for protagonist girl X and antagonist guy Y to get a little close in the dark. Maybe the plot changes here and he’s not really such a bad guy after all. Maybe that first kiss during credits is messing with her head and he IS a bad guy. What if the setting is coastal and a hurricane blows through? That beach or ocean could take on almost human characteristics, rolling, recoiling, breaking to the storm. How does this make characters move? Do the characters show sympathy to the land for the beating it takes? You get my point.
  • Literature that feels familiar across cultures and nationalities can still be respectful of each when the setting is appropriately described. Avoid generalizations. Do real research. Get feedback on your description of certain people and places from readers in that demographic, people who know from first-hand, real-life experience what you’re trying to describe. Have them tell you if you’re wrong or offensive, or if you’ve gotten it right.
  • Present Absence is just as profound as a physical setting. I’m aware of how much an oxymoron that is. Think of it this way: Present Absence is the permeating sense of something missing. A setting that’s missing can have a huge impact on a character’s life. Maybe the character is living in a foster home. The nagging presence of a setting that is actually absent—a home, a family, a bedroom all her own—can alter the way your character thinks, feels, interacts with others, etc. This missing setting is no less a setting because the character has not attained it. Often it’s this missing place that is one of the character’s main goals and motivations which drives the plot.
  • Just as setting can be something absent, it can be intangible. Setting is not just place, but time. Think about the narrative structure around longing, waiting, forgetting, remembering. Time is what makes all of these concepts exist. Sure, the character involved in these things will likely be in a physical space as well, unless you happen to be writing some type of space-time-continuum story where the characters exist outside of that. But, it’s ok for there to be time AND place. No one said writers had to pick one setting and stick to it. Very few novels successfully occur in one place for the entire story.
  • Place/setting evokes memory which is an easy way to get characters and readers to connect.
  • If you’re writing specifics of a location, get maps. Also, if you plan to travel for research, decide what you’re looking for and what you’re hoping to learn before you go. It sounds like common sense, but you wouldn’t want to get caught up in irrelevant details (and that’s easy to do if you’re touring a new and beautiful location). The best suggestion given in the session in regards to travel was to take a manuscript and any previously completed formal research with you. Refer to spots in the manuscript that are missing that something and write in details directly where they belong in the story as you learn them. It was also suggested to find a travel sponsor to help with the trip. You may be able to do documentary-type travel writing with the info you gather, cover your travel costs, and still get that info for your novel.
  • Understand your setting from your character’s point of view, not your own.

Non-setting advice from the session:

  • Distinguish between drafting, revision, and editing. Try your hardest to avoid editing while you’re drafting. The wonderful part of drafting is the freedom to get your thoughts out. If you stop to edit every paragraph, those thoughts could float away before they’ve been written.
  • Narrative should speed up toward the end because you’re building to a culmination. You’re also finished describing things that you’ve already described at the beginning, so the attention can be placed on action and emotion rather than imagery.
  • We make legends because history gets stale. Make the legend seem like a real historical account with detailed and convincing visuals.

Hope you all are making progress on any projects you’ve started, and that these insights are as useful to you as they were to me. If you like these tips, be sure to check out the first two installments here and here, the first of which has also been published by the Penmen Review, here. Thanks for reading and, as always,

Happy writing!

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast






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