First, let’s be clear on one thing. The difference between good and bad writing is simple: Good writing is not entirely dependent upon the setting. But bad writing sometimes is.
Wait. Isn’t this whole article about setting?
Yes. But good writing rises above time and place. Why? Because ultimately, good writing is about being and becoming. Being happens anywhere that life happens. Becoming happens no matter what the fashion of the day is, no matter what car your character is driving, and no matter what color your dragon or your jetpack is.
If good writing wasn’t transcendental in this way, then only rural Depression-era Southern Americans would be able to appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird and only hobbits would be able to understand The Lord of the Rings.
This is why good writing isn’t really about any particular time or place. Writing that is only about a time is history. Writing that is only about a place is geography. Writing that is only about space-time is physics. But literature is about people and the wide-ranging toils, terrors, and triumphs that come along with people.
So why should you worry about setting and description? Because even if good writing isn’t dependent on the setting:
- What would the Harry Potter Series be without Hogwarts?
- What would The Lord of the Rings be without the Shire?
- What would Heart of Darkness be without Colonial Africa?
Without a setting that has been meticulously crafted, a setting that is new and bold and weird and strange and lovingly detailed, your reader just won’t get very far.
So what do readers want from a setting?
Right up front and for the cost of their admission, readers want to know what you’re going to show them. They want to know what the weather is like, the lay of the land, the color of that lake, the steep pitch of that roof. The reader wants to know because the setting provides a stage on which the characters can tromp. And because the setting’s attendant details — sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, social folkways, seas, mountains, dialects, economics — all serve to determine the overall tone of the story. It must be believable and sufficiently described to be as real for your readers as the rooms they are sitting in while reading it. In fact, if you do it right, setting and description become essential to your fiction. They become the foundation on which the rest of the story is built.
Can there be too much detail?
Different genres have different levels of tolerance for details. If you read Edgar Rice Burroughs side by side with Ernest Hemingway, you’ll quickly see the difference. Burroughs’ prose is rich, vibrant, lush, maybe even bloated with details about his setting. Hemingway, on the other hand, is Spartan. Both can be a good read, but the conventions of their genres are quite different. If you tried to write a romantic bodice-ripper in Hemingway’s terse, minimalistic style, you’d likely turn your readers away.
The real question isn’t whether you have enough or too many details, but whether you have the right details.
Even if the reader does want to know about the weather, the pitch of the roof, and the lake, your problem as a writer is to know whether these things have anything to do with your story. If you mention the steep pitch of that roof, you have to find a way for that detail to be meaningful to the story. If it’s necessary to the tale, then it’s the right detail. Otherwise, cut it out. The reader won’t miss the wrong details. In fact, too many wrong details will leave readers stumbling around running their shins into the clutter of furniture. Your story will become a painful experience, and ultimately readers will leave the building, never to return.
World-building requires a special note here. Most genres of fiction are set in places that either currently exist, or did exist at some specific time. As such, there are modern and historical resources from which one can draw details, and one’s readers can be expected to understand what most of the bric-a-brac of the world is. A wardrobe is a wardrobe, a cigar is a cigar. Simple.
But Speculative Fiction (SciFi/Fantasy) often requires the complete fabrication of a heretofore unknown setting. What’s the weather like on the fourth planet of Wolf-359? What kind of life inhabits the oceans of Europa? What’s an elf?
It’s vital to remember that no matter how futuristic or fantastic your setting is, it still has to be a stage upon which your characters do something to which your earthbound, 21st century reader can relate.
More than that, the setting must maintain a consistency of description when it comes to the rules that you’ve created or those that are already in place. For example, your earthbound 21st century reader has to breathe. Mars doesn’t have a breathable atmosphere. If the characters in your story are running around breathing, you need to provide a mechanism consistent with science (or your own special fiction rules) by which this breathable air was produced/provided.
Hence why Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series has difficulty making the leap to a modern audience, while Tarzan seems to go on forever in new books, movies, comics, TV series, etc. We can relate to being children abandoned in the wilderness and raised by savages. “Mom, please! Drop me off at the corner before my friends can see you! I’m begging you!” But we can’t relate to running around not breathing on Mars.
To achieve this consistency, you may have to provide more description than usual when creating a futuristic/fantastic place, and you’ll have to use earthly terms to do it. But be warned: world-building is a special kind of rabbit-hole into which sci-fi/fantasy writers can disappear, developing ocean-spanning empires and dozens of neo-philological experiments. If you dive too far, you will end up with Hamlet written in the original Klingon. Which is great, I hear it’s amazing. But no one will be able to read it except Klingons and Trekkies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But keep in mind your audience of Klingons and Trekkies is fairly limited. Even Star Trek: TOS didn’t feature much (if any) “original Klingon” before Marc Okrand retro-actively introduced it to the Star Trek continuity twenty-odd years later. In fact, I think we learn more “original Vulcan” in Star Trek: TOS than we do Klingon. Why? Because there was a Vulcan character in the ensemble.
And so we come to World-Building Lesson #1: Develop only as much of your fantastic/futuristic setting as you need to tell your story. Don’t worry about when that savage barbarian tribe three thousand miles and three hundred years distant from your story actually acquired the technological advancement known as “the fork” and what they called it in their own native language, and what it was called in the native language of the people that introduced it to them, as well as the seven dialects of proto-language between those two languages. Unless your characters and your story need to know, then the reader doesn’t care.
Meet My Setting
In my current Work-in-Progress, the action of the story is set in a country known as the Kingdom of Droma.
It is a place that could exist (I hope) on Earth, or at least under Earth-like conditions. Most of the normal rules of physics apply. Water flows downhill. You can’t go from a swamp to a desert without passing through (or over) some other kind of land. Terrain features found at sea-level in the tropics are not also found thousands of feet above sea level surrounded by snow-covered peaks. The local solar-year is 365 days of 24 hours each. There is one moon. It completes its lunar cycle in 28 days. Sounds boring so far, right?
Right. So most of these kinds of details don’t appear in the story set in Droma. When I use the word ‘year’, I don’t explain how many days, hours, or minutes that means, because it doesn’t mean anything special or different in this setting. A year is a year. When a river flows to the sea, it runs down from the mountains and the hills, just as on Earth. Unless these details would advance my story, there’s no reason to trouble the reader with them.
What’s the weather like? For the sake of convenience, I selected a real world place as an analog, so that I could make use of some known facts from our own world. It’s like Ireland as far as latitude and longitude go. That puts Droma in the northern half of the temperate climate range. So now I know that there’s no monsoon season, and it doesn’t snow in June, but it might snow in December. If the setting were tropical, it wouldn’t snow at all at sea-level, nor for a considerable distance uphill into the mountains, no matter what time of year.
Is Droma near the sea? No. Droma is land-locked and set inland from the sea among the foothills of a formidable snow-capped mountain range. So now I know there are no seagulls or deep-sea fishermen in Droma. Including a seagull would be the wrong kind of detail for the setting, unless there were some compelling plot reason for it. But there is a major river nearby, and minor streams, creeks, and rivulets throughout, so freshwater fowl and wetland animals aren’t uncommon.
So where is the sea in relation to Droma? To the south, about a week’s travel for a man on foot. Close enough to have a significant effect on the climate, but not so close that it’s a day-to-day part of people’s lives.
Wait — A week’s travel on foot? Do people often travel on foot in Droma? Yes, or less commonly by beast (horse, mule, donkey, pony, ox, etc.).
Why do the people travel on foot or on animals? Because they haven’t developed the technology for steam, internal combustion, or other types of powered mechanical transportation. But can I use this detail in my story? Not as such. If the technology hasn’t been developed, then the characters don’t know they don’t have it. Instead, I have to make this detail conspicuous by its absence.
Rounding the next bend, Eowain came in sight of the Lady Fidelm’s entourage.
She was making no attempt to hide her progress. A horse-drawn carriage and a handful of wagons, surrounded by soldiers, some mounted and more a-foot. Eowain figured there had to be nigh on a hundred men-at-arms in her entourage.
If the setting were different (modern day Washington DC, for example), the entourage might be “a limousine and a handful of black SUVs, surrounded by police, some on motorcycles….” But the lack of these things is conspicuous, and information about the setting is provided by omitting details that are irrelevant to it.
So what’s the weather like again? Warm water off the sea from the south gives the land a generally Mediterranean climate at a northern temperate latitude, while cold air descending from the steep mountains to the north brings rain, snow, and long winters. This implies certain facts about the setting.
The hills along this stretch of the river were grassy and the soil rich, good pastureland in summer for horses and cattle. But this was winter. A rime of old snow and hoarfrost coated the ground. Brittle brown stubble was all that remained of the summer-grass. There against a hillside, a herd of milk-cows huddled for warmth in a byre. Mist rose from that congregation of kine and fell east toward the river, snaking through the hills.
The Value of Interrogation
So you can see, to understand one’s setting, one interrogates the facts and assumptions about the setting just as one would interrogate a character. In many ways, the “character” of the setting and its people are as vital to the story you want to tell as the characters tromping around on it. Your fiction has to have a setting rich enough to match the story you intend to tell. It mustn’t be too rich, or the reader will become lost in it. Neither must it be too mean, or the reader won’t get lost enough.
By questioning and interrogating your setting, many of the most common questions a reader might have are answered. But take care that the details you choose to include are necessary to the story. Only include that which advances the story, establishes the mood, supports the development of the theme, places the action, and/or contextualizes the conflict.
Look over these basic story ideas. Then jot down several possible primary settings (times and places) where the ideas might be fully realized. Think of places where you have been or places you have an interest in and would like to visit. And consider reasons to set the story in one place or time rather than another:
- Two old friends end up on opposite sides of a labor dispute in an automobile factory
- The ghost of a slave appears a century and a half after his death
- A tale of espionage in a large hotel
- The old man befriended by a young couple at a resort might, or might not, be a Nazi fugitive
- A spoiled, city teenager who survives a plane crash must endure a wilderness and find her way to civilization
- A woman returns to her old hometown to make amends for a bad thing she did years ago
- A murder is done at a famous landmark, and an innocent tourist is implicated
Feel free to share your exercise in the comments below.
Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction
For those of you who don’t know, I’m going to be participating in the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge hosted by Write… Edit… Publish, August 19-26, 2015. As of this writing, I’m honored to be in the company of 21 outstanding fellow writers in this challenge, so it promises to be very exciting. I’ll be making a series of bonus posts here on my blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, and through my the mailing list next week, so stay tuned for special news and updates on this event.
And for a lively discussion on settings that her readers have never forgotten, check out this discussion on Damyanti’s “The Daily (W)rite.”
If you’ve been enjoying this content, please sign up for the mailing list:
You’ll receive access to free eBook content, daily writing prompts, and a monthly newsletter from the studio of a working writer and professional publisher.