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We have already talked about two of the three c’s of storytelling: character and conflict (the most obvious). But context and setting, the overall glue that holds a story together, is just as important. Setting is more than just a backdrop that is unfurled so that things can happen in the foreground. If you separate setting from the story it results in stagey writing that feels disconnected and unreal. You need an element of believability to your story (no matter how fantastical) and setting provides the platform for this believability.
In this fortnight’s lesson we will discuss why setting and context are more than just background. Through a series of videos, lessons and exercises, you will learn how to avoid repetitious setting, keep world building consistent, and how to provide enough information to ground your readers without overwhelming them.
TOPIC ONE: Setting & Context – A Video From Kim
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TOPIC TWO: The Influence Of Setting
Setting can influence your manuscript at both a structural (macro) and line (micro) level.
One example of a context and setting problem that occurs at the macro level would be having your knights wear plate armour in ninth century England. This is a massive structural inaccuracy as knights wore no such thing in this time period. Another example is characters and conflicts that seem unmoved by the context of the time, e.g. if you have a plot set in the same time period as the first world war, yet the war had no impact on the storyline or character, this would be a major structural oversight.
An example of a context and setting problem that occurs at the micro level would be two characters at a loud concert, being able to can hear everything each other says. This is not realistic, as words would be missed, unless they had voices with the strength of fog horns.
As an author you need to look out for these sorts of problems, as the world and the narrative are not separate but influence and are influenced by each other. The reader needs to be able to sense this give and take relationship as they read.
Problems in setting and context tend to fall into three main categories which we will examine below.
TOPIC THREE: Repetitive Settings
Repetition often plagues books in their second half. In saying that, every new scene in a novel does not need to take place in a different setting. Some settings have to be re-used for narrative reasons (e.g. a prison story), or to create a sense of familiarity, or even to create the feeling that the setting is a character in itself. But you need to be aware of how many times a setting is used, as the more often it is used the less dynamic it is likely to become. Familiarity (in scene or context) is at odds with drama and tension generally and you run the risk of the world beyond the repeated setting becoming white space and losing that feeling of connectedness and grounding.
Go to your scene map and note on a separate piece of paper the setting of each scene. Look at the number of scenes you have in each location. Do you have 100 scenes and 25 of them are in the living room of your main character? If so, that is almost a quarter of you novel set in the living room – not a particularly dynamic setting at the best of times.
The reader doesn’t know what happens outside that place. Is there any reason for so many uses? If not, it might indicate that you are rushing, moving through the story just to get to the end.
Identify a setting that is used too many times in your novel and think about alternative locations it could be set that make it more dynamic and interesting. For example, if you have a chick lit novel with five girls in a café and every scene is in a café, you’re missing out on options to make things stimulating. Set a few scenes outside in the weather or in crowds where they can misunderstand each other, or other people can look at them and judge them for gossiping, etc.
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TOPIC FOUR: Is The Setting Information Well Integrated?
In a great novel, information is woven in rather than dropped in great slabs. Putting in information in large slabs is known as an info-dump and breaks the spell of the narrative.
It is particularly important in novels that use exotic settings, like historical, fantasy or travel genres, that you recognise and break up info-dumps. Readers want to feel the strangeness and difference of this world (real or imagined) without it being too obvious and popping them out of the story.
So consider your genre and how detail features in it: a historical novel thrives on rich detail, dwelling on the types of tea cups and saucers etc., because that’s one of the pleasures of reading that genre; a thriller can be sparser; a fantasy novel needs to explain how the world and logic of the world works in enough detail to get a picture.
So how do you determine whether or not you’re dumping information on the reader?
- First, check your setting descriptions. Remove all repetitions and break up all chunks of description longer than four sentences with action, dialogue or introspection.
- Consider who the description is serving: the writer or the reader? If your description is for the sole purpose of showing off your world, you might need to rein in any description that doesn’t have bearing on the story (again, the type of details you include will depend on your genre).
- Info-dumps happen most often at the beginning of the story. Look for points where you’ve dropped out of your character’s viewpoint and are just giving facts about the world. It can be hard for an author to know how much information a reader needs to ‘get’ the story, but the key is not to give everything away at once. Keep a bit of mystery by limiting the reader to key details and noting places later in your manuscript where you can work the rest of the information in (if necessary!).
- Don’t forget to check your dialogue too, as sometimes authors dump information in dialogue. Characters never tell each other information they already know. If your characters have been living in this world you created, no-one needs to tell them the dragon comes on every third Thursday of the month, for example. This sort of detail can go in narration.
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TOPIC FIVE: Have You Given Enough Information?
Most writers give the reader too little to work with, especially when it’s an exotic or unusual setting. It’s an annoying problem we call ‘white space’. This is common as authors have the whole picture in their head, but don’t necessarily transfer it all to paper. For this reason, setting issues cannot be dealt with lightly. You don’t pick them up on a skim read.
White space is dealt with at both structural and line edit level. This is where we consider the author’s world-building, a term that doesn’t just belong to the fantasy genre. Find a place in your manuscript where beta readers or your peers have identified the scene is light on detail. In most cases, this will be because you haven’t taken the time to properly imagine the scene. In an effort to ‘see’ this scene more clearly, ask yourself:
- If you are in a house or building: Where is the staircase? What materials are the walls made of? What kind of carpets? What are the smells? Sounds?
- If a story is set in a village/town/city: What lies just beyond it? What is at the end of the street? From which direction does the main road come? What buildings lie between the cafe and the office that the main character frequents? Etc.
- If you’re trying to build a whole civilisation (fantasy/historical/sci-fi) you need to go into much more detail: What are the laws that govern the people? How do they get their food and other supplies? What are the significant geographical features? How do they punish their criminals? There is a great online resource compiled by fantasy author Patricia Wrede which lists all of the potential questions an author might ask themselves to build a fictional world. You can find this resource here: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
While you as an author need to know all that information to bring authenticity to your world, the reader does not, so only weave a tenth of the detail you create into the story.
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TOPIC SIX: Tips For Weaving Detail Into A Story
Two words that can really help you here are orient and anchor. In each scene, the first thing you need to do is orient the reader quickly, then anchor the setting and context securely in their imagination.
You need to orientate the reader within the first two paragraphs of a scene. Where are we? Is it day or night? Inside or outside? Are there crowds of people around, or nobody? And whose head/viewpoint are we in?
Within one double-spaced page, put in a set of anchor points, beats of detail that draw the reader’s attention to specific images: cobbled street, brightly painted shutters, noisy market stalls, tall gum trees, muddy creek, churning storm clouds, polished mahogany desk, white leather armchair, sombre-coloured roman blinds, smouldering humidity.
It’s okay to cluster them tightly together, but do it with a light touch. Try to mix it with action, dialogue and introspection. These anchor points begin to map the white space for your reader, already they are starting to see and feel the setting.
How much you add now depends on your genre. Start evoking the other senses: the smell of lemons and rosemary from the fruit stall; the sticky blanket of humidity; the expectant ticking of a clock. These beats are spread throughout the action, and are part of the narrative rather than standing outside it. A little here, a little there.
At all times, as much as possible, try to attach these evocative beats to a viewpoint character. For example, if there is a smouldering humidity the character may take off their jacket, or fan themselves and enjoy the cool breeze. You are recording the effect of the setting on somebody’s senses and somebody’s thoughts. Then it feels more real for the reader.
So when you turn to your scene map and look at the setting of each scene ask yourself if the description is dynamic and attached to a viewpoint character. Take a key couple of scenes from the beginning and look at ways to integrate the setting and potentially re-focalise it so the setting comes from the character’s viewpoint.
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Sometimes we repeat settings, especially towards the end of a novel. While in most cases that’s fine, you are losing an opportunity for excitement. If you have 100 scenes and 25 of them are in the living room (not particularly dynamic), consider switching things up. Setting repetition can limit the dramatic scope of the novel because familiarity is at odds with drama and tension generally.
This activity will:
- Teach you to transfer your scene from one setting to another and,
- Consider how the environment impacts the conversation and action taking place.
WHAT TO DO
Below are some typical settings for particular kinds of novels. Can you think of how changing the setting could add more potential for narrative interest? Pick one to work with and post your efforts in the Settings Forum. Discuss with your peers what you liked about their rewrites, and what they might add into the mix that they may have missed.
- Historical romance: The hero asks the heroine to marry him, but she refuses. Typical setting: the drawing room. What other settings would work? Why?
- Crime novel: The detective has to question a reluctant suspect. Typical setting: the interrogation room. What other settings would work? Why?
- Fantasy novel: The king tells his second son that he is disinheriting his first son. Typical setting: a throne room. What other settings would work? Why?
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