Six impossible things

Where Are We?

Every story, short or long, takes place somewhere. Every scene takes place somewhere. And every place has features about it that are unique, whether it is the collection of overly cute fairy-figurines on the mantelpiece in the parlor, the cracked and faded mural across the back wall of the bar, or the odd kink in the third-level corridor on the spaceship.

This is one of those too-obvious-to-mention things that a lot of writers seem to forget on occasion. In at least some cases, I think the cause is related to the intensely media-heavy world we live in – when one is used to seeing what everything looks like, all at once, the way one does in a movie or a picture, it can be difficult to slow down and describe things one at a time, the way one must when one is working with words and sentences and paragraphs. In other cases, I suspect the problem is that the author is so familiar with the setting that, for them, one word or a short phrase is enough to evoke it: “Chicago,” “New York,” “D.C.” In still other cases, the author is so afraid of making a mistake that they leave out everything that is not absolutely essential, resulting in a story where they characters might as well be wandering around in a thick gray fog.  And sometimes, the author wants to use a setting that is imaginary, or at least unfamiliar to them, but they’re too busy or in too much of a hurry to do the work of making or looking it up in as much depth as they need.

Yet setting is something that affects nearly every aspect of a story, one way or another. Accurate portrayals of a real-life place will please or delight readers who are familiar with that place already, and often impress readers who haven’t yet been there. The first time I saw the movie “The Sting” (set in Chicago in the 1930s), I was utterly delighted by the fact that periodically there would be this loud rumbling and all of the characters would have to stop talking for a minute. I’d never seen anything set in Chicago that included the effect of the El on conversation (the El = elevated trains – that’s what made the rumbling). My first real job, the summer after high school, was a block from the El, and that’s exactly what happened.

There are two parts to writing a setting, whether it’s a real place or an imaginary one: 1) Putting in the key things that make this place different from any other, and 2) Not putting in anything that doesn’t fit. This applies to both on-stage and off-stage settings. (By “off-stage setting” I mean any places that affect the characters or story that aren’t actually shown. For instance, if your story takes place in San Diego, but one of the characters grew up in Wisconsin, that character had better have seen snow and know about tornado sirens and the wind chill factor. You don’t have to mention those details specifically unless they’re important to the story, but that Wisconsin-raised character had better not look ignorant or surprised if the subject of snow comes up.)

The key things that you put into your descriptions will differ from story to story. If a character works or shops in the Loop in downtown Chicago, the El and its effects are probably worth mentioning (especially if they’re working in an older building without modern sound-proofing). If they work four or five blocks from the train lines and shop in the suburban malls, not so much. It’s seldom worth making a point of the odd ways Chicagoans have of pronouncing certain street names (Devon as de-VOHN, for instance), but if one needs a quick way of showing that someone is from out-of-town, it could work.

Not putting in stuff that doesn’t fit is just as important, and this is where the writer has to really be aware of his/her assumptions. If all you know is the climate and geography of the mid-continental plains, and you’re writing about mountains or the coast, or in some cases even forests, you want to do a bunch of research and maybe even get some things checked out by friends who live in places like the ones you’re writing about. A San Diego native who does NOT have trouble adjusting to his first winter in Winnepeg isn’t going to be any more believable than the Wisconsin guy who has never heard of wind chill.

And all of this is strongly affected by the viewpoint and viewpoint character you’re using. An omniscient viewpoint can describe whatever the author wants, however he wants. In a tight-third-person or first-person viewpoint, it will break the viewpoint if the author describes things the viewpoint character can’t see, doesn’t know, or doesn’t care about. The Frontier Magic series I’m working on doesn’t have a lot of physical description of places or people, and it drives some of my readers crazy. But the memoir form I’m using for those books isn’t suited to much description, and Eff isn’t the sort to describe things she’s really familiar with (and the one time I did it, the editor very wisely cut that paragraph). The point is, I still have to know what all those things she doesn’t describe actually look like, so that when I get a chance to slip something in, I can slip in the right thing.

6 Comments
  1. Often when I read, I skim over the setting description so when I write I have a tendency to have people doing things on a stage with no environmental context.

    It’s been a struggle but I think I’m getting a hang of adding in that just-right-amount of description to put the characters in a real world but not so much that I bore myself.

  2. I enjoy reading setting descriptions, especially the more poetic ones. However, I think it is important to place descriptions of the setting in context and give those objects that are being described a reason for being there. Setting and mood are almost interchangeable in the way they rely on one another. Describing the buildings tells us something about the world, and what materials are used; a collection of Victorian photos tells us something about a character’s obsession with the time period; and so on. Without context, without meaning or connections, setting description becomes a pretty infodump that readers skip. Sorry, just some thoughts. And of course, thank you for another great blog post. I enjoy them thoroughly. 🙂

  3. I get bored with lengthy descriptions when I read too. I tend to leave them out when I write. I’ve been trying to add a few brief descriptions here and there to offer more detail. I should probably work on this aspect of my writing more.

    • Alex – If you are trying to up your descriptive abilities, you might be able to force yourself to practice by using a close personal viewpoint (first-person or tight-third person) and then picking a viewpoint character who really pays attention to their surroundings for some reason – a painter or photographer, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, an interior decorator or landscape designer.

      Ashley – Yes; the things that are unique about a place always have a reason for being there, and therefore those are the details that tell the reader a lot more about the people or the history than just “the sky was blue and there were hills coming up.” On the other hand, sometimes the writer wants to evoke a sense of familiarity, or luxury, or ordinariness, and the descriptive details are chosen for that reason instead.

      Jessica – You don’t have to do your description in lumps. It’s often more effective (and much easer for the infodump-phobic) to work in little bits as the viewpoint character moves through a particular setting. I just added the link to the post I did on that to the “Related Posts” secton of this post – it’s the one titled “But What does it look like?” so you can take a closer look if you think that might be a help.

  4. Oh, yes, check your assumptions.

    For a while I made a hobby of looking for the utterly ridiculous depictions of modern-day Germany that comic (as in Marvel/DC comics) writers and artists employed, but it got too tiresome.

  5. i dont know.. im not much of a reader and dont think that this brief comment has to do with anything that anyone else has posted.. but im the kind of guy that likes to piece together a setting or a town or a situation as im reading (when and if i do) and so in this case the thirteenth child i enjoyed a lot because it helped me play with my imagination. currently re-reading it again after i read it first in highschool just randomly picking it up looking forward to what eff has to “brainstorm” up next

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