Six impossible things

Where it happens

Setting is one of the things that seems to get short shrift in a lot of beginner stories/novels. Even writers who are devotees of the Tolkien School of Background and Appendices tend to focus on the history and politics part of worldbuilding, and occasionally on various aspects of culture, rather than working on the setting of the story itself.

But place is a part of every story, and affects every story in fundamental ways. Sometimes, this is obvious; it is hard to imagine Ben Aaronovich’s The Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot) being set anywhere but London, and L. Frank Baum’s color-coded Land of Oz is nearly another character (certainly Dorothy’s journey home would have been very different, had she landed in some other setting). Other times, the effect of place is more subtle.

The one thing that never seems to work for me, though, is a story that the writer seems to be trying to set in a kind of generic Everywhere, either deliberately or accidentally. I think it doesn’t work because place is inherently specific. Cities are different from small towns and from each other. Mountain settings are different from the plains; coastal cliffs are different from river bluffs; temperate forests are different from equatorial jungles. They are all different from each other in very specific ways: in the weather, the quality of light, the way the air smells, as well as in more immediately obvious things like the type of vegetation and what your characters can see when they look out the window.

Getting a sense of place across to a reader is as difficult for some writers as getting characterization across. Sometimes more so – characters can at least talk to each other and reveal themselves that way. Places usually just sit there while characters move through them.

Some of us are also hampered by our own backgrounds. When I was in grade school, we had loads of dreary “write a description of X” assignments, where X was something like “an autumn day” or “a sunset” or “a lake in winter.” Once one gets accustomed to padding three sentences’ worth of facts about the lake (it’s frozen over; it has houses or trees along the shore; there are footprints in the snow on the ice) into the two or three paragraphs required by the English teacher, one tends either to default to scattering similar little lumps of description throughout one’s prose, or else to leaving any description out entirely.

In its most extreme form, one ends up with a manuscript like one I read recently, in which almost nothing actually happens or is described in the story, except in dialog. Even a major fight scene involving one of the two main viewpoint characters happens offstage, and the reader only finds out about it when one character describes it to the other. By the end of the description, what we know is that the fight happened at “a hotel,” and we can deduce that the hotel had at least two rooms, because the character who was in the fight refers to retreating into “the next room” while waiting for reinforcements.

While it is true that few readers have the patience for the sort of pages-long scene-setting that was popular in 19th century novels, most fiction is more effective if the characters are not moving through a gray fog or across an empty stage, with an occasional chair or door or tree appearing as required by the action.

How one achieves this will depend in part on one’s process. Some writers have to write themselves into a place, or discover it as the story unfolds, the same way some write their way into characters. Others benefit from having some level of description written out in advance (‘some level’ varies by writer, from the aforementioned two-paragraph summary to several pages of details, possibly accompanied by maps, floor plans, layout diagrams, and sketches).

Whichever way one proceeds, it is usually useful to think a bit about place at some point from three vantage points: the author’s, the reader’s, and the character’s. From the author’s view, the first question to ask is, “What are the things that make this place – these mountains, this village, this sitting room or pub or throne room – unique? How is it different from every other mountain/village/thing of this sort in the entire world?” The second question is “Am I going to need any specific/unusual details later on in the story?” If the main character slips on a moss-covered log at a crucial moment, or dodges behind a lamppost, you probably want a passing mention of those features earlier to avoid their too-convenient appearance just when the character needs them handy.

From the reader’s view, the question is “What are the things about this place that most readers will not think of visualizing unless I mention them?” If you say the characters come to a lake, you probably don’t have to mention the water (unless it is purple or otherwise unusual), but you might want to mention the fog, and probably the lightning-struck pine at the water’s edge with half its branches gone.

From the character’s view, the question is always “How do these characters react to this particular place?” Usually, one worries first about the viewpoint character: Has he/she ever been here before? If so, do they take it for granted, or do they have strong feelings or memories (positive or negative) associated with the last time they were here? If they haven’t been here before, how does it make them feel? If one of the secondary characters has a strong reaction (because this is where she proposed to her first husband), how do they express it in their actions/words/tone of voice and is this strong enough for the viewpoint character to notice?

6 Comments
  1. From the reader’s view, the question is “What are the things about this place that most readers will not think of visualizing unless I mention them?”

    This is currently the focus of my writing practice.

    I’ve always been strong in the writer’s arena. Maps, floor plans, climate notes, terrain notes and so on are part of my prep. I know what’s there, what it looks like, feels like, smells like, etc.

    The character arena feels pretty natural to me as well. As I write, I tend to actually feel in my own body what the characters are feeling and sensing in theirs – tension, relaxation, touch, smell, sound, etc.

    The place that is challenging for me is keeping track of what I know and my characters know versus what my reader doesn’t know. At this stage I must still rely heavily on my first readers. The question I always ask them is: where were you confused? That’s the indicator I need to look for what I left out.

    But I want to get ever more clear myself on what needs to go it! I think your question – “What are the things about this place that most readers will not think of visualizing unless I mention them?” – will help me in growing my awareness in this arena. Thank you!

  2. Right now my novel takes place in a rather generic town and I’ve been trying to fix it. I’ve learned more about coastal cities than I would have otherwise though!

  3. An element of place that many writers forget, even when they have gone to the trouble of establishing atmosphere, is layout. As popular as maps are, especially in fantasy, they are almost invariably drawn on a large scale, showing regional borders, mountains, rivers, and forests. Just as important, if not more so, are the smaller scale elements—buildings and even furnishings in a room. I recall reading a western where the posse left the hotel, passed the saloon and then the bank and then the governor’s house. When they returned to town, they came to the bank before the governor’s house, and the hotel had moved to be across from rather than next to the saloon. Someone had been mighty busy while they were away!

    When my characters spend more than a few minutes in a given room, I make a sketchy little map of the layout—where the bed, desk, chairs, windows, and door are. It takes only a few seconds and helps avoid physical impossibilities as well as giving my brain a better sense of the space.

  4. There is, of course, the question of how much your characters will notice.

    I was once pleased with myself when I was revising a long story and noticing that all the non-trival references to plants were in the POV of the character who likes gardening.

    • My antagonist is self-centered , egotistical, and entitled – but her mother supported their family by landscape gardening, and the antagonist is the one who notices – and makes catty comments when appropriate – the shrubbery etc.

      It came naturally at first as I tried to humanize her a bit, and now I make an effort to put the little touches in from her pov.

      She has reasons – not excuses – for some of the things she does, but we all have remainders of our upbringing, and she does, too.

      That way the good character doesn’t get my gardening traits – I love my little antagonist, and would avoid her in real life.

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