Nothing anchors a reader more solidly in a work of fiction than knowing the when and where of whatever is taking place. Setting provides a home-base for everything else that happens in your story or novel. More importantly, the when and where of setting—along with the characters that do things in there—provide you with the means to actually tell a story, rather than simply write a report.
So this week, we’ll look at a few ways for you to put your readers in the times and places where those stories can emerge.
Here’s the thing. As fiction writers, we have to make sure that every one of our stories “actually happens” in the mind, eyes, ears, nose and throat of the reader. Our stories should happen as surely in fiction as if they were actually transpiring in fact.
So how do you do that?
- Establish your characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place. This is the overall credibility of your story.
- Effectively convey those characters and situations and details so that the story actually does take place. This is the specific credibility of your story.
One of the best ways to ensure that both of these things happen is to pay close attention to the description of your setting.
For the reader, the events in the story have to really happen as if the events in the story were “based on a true story.” Your fiction should seem that real to your readers. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want—and need—to convey in a scene and then choose the very best words that you can come up with in order to describe the details.
A list of all the images you feel should be included, kept close by while you’re writing, can be very helpful to you. You can check off things that you include, cross out ones you’ve reconsidered, and make notes (e.g., “use later”) beside others.
Macrocosm vs. Microcosm
When starting a story, you have a decision to make regarding the setting: Do you want to start with a wide frame overview of the setting (called an “establishing shot” in cinema) and then tighten your focus, or do you want to start with that narrower viewpoint and work within it.
For most of your story, you’ll probably work within that narrower viewpoint (the microcosm), but there will also be times when the broader view (the macrocosm) will be important. Let’s look at each.
The macrocosm is the more far-reaching series of events swirling around the one little action taken by a character or two. A soldier struggling to survive does so amid the turbulent whirlwind of a world war. Two kids falling in love do so against the backdrop of an ancient feud. The world war and the ancient feud are the macrocosms of those stories. These are the events that care not one whit for your characters and their little problems. The macrocosm can be used to give the reader a glimpse of the wider context in which the story is set, and this can serve to level-set the stakes at play in your story. A soldier struggling to survive in a suburban mall at Christmas time will be a very different story than one scrambling up the beach at Normandy.
Macrocosm can be used quite briefly, before slipping into the narrower perspective of your story, or it can be very lengthy. Your approach here depends on your needs and what you want to do to your reader. If you just need a different perspective, brevity will do. But if you want to establish the importance of a major setting, you may want to linger on it for a while.
By contrast, microcosm is the specific, “little” world of your character. The immediate sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches that surround a specific character while undertaking a specific action in a specific place. This place—maybe it’s a home, or even a hometown—is incredibly clear and distinct compared to the wider world (the macrocosm) beyond it. That clarity and distinction is what you should aim for in your fiction. If a particular room is going to be important—or if important things are going to happen there—then it cannot be a featureless white room, a generic room, a room without personality. It has to be the room, the one that you envision and none other.
Description of or reference to the macrocosm can serve to remind your readers that your specific setting is only one piece in a much larger puzzle, and it will work nicely for you on occasion, but microcosm is where most of your fiction will be taking place. In either case, make your settings more than just places to be. Make them repositories of details that help to tell your story and define your characters.
When all else fails, what do people talk about? You guessed it: the weather.
So before writing each scene of a story, I always make sure to write down things that will help me focus on the details that will be essential in my writing. One of these is weather. And not just “cloudy with a chance of meatballs” typical 6 o’clock news weather. I also know when the sun and moon each rise and set in that location, and even which zodiacal constellation the moon is in that night. Even if the scene takes place inside a room that has no windows. Why? Because scenes usually come between other scenes, and those scenes might take place outdoors. But—more importantly—because the characters of the story are almost certainly affected by the weather. A trucker driving through a thick fog or a driving rain storm is going to be in a much different mood than one on an open highway during a bright, blue sunny day. The various moods and conditions of nature are some of the best tools in your tool box, because it’s the ultimate in relatable experiences.
Being a fantasy writer, costume is particularly important to me, but in truth, it should be important to any writer, whether you’re writing historical romance, heroic fantasy, or contemporary literature. Clothing is such an important and pervasive part of human culture that we all but ignore it—except when we don’t. “Oh my god, did you see her shoes?” Clothing conveys a wealth of information about character: social class, ethnic origin, personality, and income level, just to name a few.
And if you work in the speculative fiction field as I do, clothing can also set the period in which the story takes place. A sixth century European warrior does not go charging about in a full suit of plate mail armor, because such a thing wasn’t invented until the fifteenth century. Such anachronisms (unless they have some rational explanation in the story, like time-travel or some-such) will jar a reader out of the story and spoil the fundamental goal of literature: verisimilitude. The specific credibility of your story can be ruined by such simple gaffes, and your readers will turn elsewhere rather than turn the page.
Be There or Be Square
Good fiction allows us to be immersed—embedded even—in a particular time and place, even if only for a little while. The times and places in your fiction must be sufficiently credible as to make your readers believe that they can actually exist (even in impossible places), and they must be delivered in such a way as to make readers believe that they do actually exist in the context of your plot. Your job as a writer is to deliver those settings.