Wednesday, November 6, 2013

More than a Setting

Before I get to the weekly topic, I have some very exciting news! I've posted the first chapter of the as-yet-untitled book seven in the Persephone Alcmedi series over at my personal blog. Last Wednesday I posted the prologue HERE and we peeked in on the Vampire Excelsior's plans. This's Johnny.

We've been talking this week about how much is too much when it comes to settings. The other posts have all had some great pointers/info to share. Jeffe says you can "establish" a scene with "a few key hints" and the notion that "anything that isn't directly relevant to the story is too much." Not bad advice. Our special guest poster Lucy Snyder, says the setting "must above all else serve the story" and that "boring is too much."

I'm writing this on Monday so all I've see of the other Word-Whore's contributions this week are Jeffe's and Lucy's installments. (I know KAK will have more sound advice to add on Tuesday. She's pretty savvy, yanno.) I agree with both of the previous posts. Instead of reiterating the same ideas, I'm going to add a bit about how to find those "few key hints" that "above all else serve the story" amid the myriad of possibilities you created in your world building.

My agent, Donald Maass, says in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

The great novelists of the past and the breakout novelists of today employ many approaches to setting, but all have one element in common: detail. A setting cannot live unless it is observed in its pieces and particulars. A place is the sum of its parts. The emotions that it evokes are most effective when they are specific, better still, when they are unique.
"A place is the sum of its parts." Sure, you could give every last little detail from each blade of grass to each stone in the road to the shape of every cloud visible in the sky but that is not what he means. Obviously, those details would not all be relevant to the story and they would not all be necessary to evoke that special sense of time and place that grounds a character in the story. Unless you are one of those rare writers with a gift for writing prose that reads with all the dreamy lilts of listening to someone like Sean Connery or Patrick Stewart talk, then the superfluous details become the tedium that will bore readers to sleep.

As the author, you can envision so much in this setting--in this world--it can be overwhelming! (It's Tuesday now and I'm editing. See KAK's post...specifically her comments on street construction, decline of water purification station, treasury fluctuations, crop rotations....) So how do you sift through all that possible info to find those special features that bring the most to the scene?

From the book, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

Most settings are brought to life by the tiniest details: a stain on the carpet, a cobweb in the corner, a broken window pane. Use these types of details--often flaws or irregularities--to help make settings memorable.

It seems that in following Lukeman's suggestion, you are looking for the 'more bang for your buck' description. That little something that stands out, that seems odd or out of place, and which sticks with the reader because that detail evokes a reaction, perhaps a dread, a worry, or best of all, a question in the reader's mind. How did that window get broken? Why is it yet unfixed? 

Again to quote my agent's book:

The breakout novelist does not merely set a scene; she unveils a unique place, one resonant with a sense of time, woven through with social threads and full of destinies the universe has in store for us all. She does not merely describe a setting, she builds a world. She then sets her characters free in that world to experience all it has to offer.

As the author you must take a good look around the setting, see it in your mind's eye, and ask yourself:

What will my character notice here and how will she react/respond to it?

What unique things will catch the eye of your character? What impact does it have on her? Is there something you thought she might overlook? Something she may react to more strongly than you expected? There can be all kinds of nouns here...items, people, pets, even smells... that are present--or evidence of them while the items, people, pets, smells are absent--and these pieces of the setting help not only evoke the mood of the setting, but enable the author to show us facets of the character. Add it all up to get the sum of its parts and you'll find it's much more than a setting.


  1. It may come as no surprise, but I love this: "Most settings are brought to life by the tiniest details: a stain on the carpet, a cobweb in the corner, a broken window pane. Use these types of details--often flaws or irregularities--to help make settings memorable."

  2. Exciting news, and I loved your chapter one!

    Nice points on setting, a good question to have your characters ask.