Ten Things You Should Know About Setting

This week, terribleminds is moving hosts. We got too big for our britches and we’re fleeing the warm embrace of Laughing Squid and diving deeper into the trenches of a LiquidWeb VPS server. I’m not anticipating any downtime, but one never knows in such an instance what will happen. So, I figured this wasn’t a good week for an entirely brand new “25 Things” list.

What I am doing, however, is giving you a tasty chocolate Whitman sampler of “25 Things” — these have never before been on terribleminds but can instead be found in their entirety in my writing books.

You’ll find this works on the following schedule:

Monday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about setting! (from 500 More Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Tuesday:

1o (of 25) things you should know about endings! (from 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Wednesday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about screenplays! (from 250 Things You Should Know About Writing)

Let us begin.

10 Things You Should Know About Setting

1. What Is It?

Setting anchors your story in a place and a time. A short story or film may hover over a single setting; a longer-form film or novel may bounce across dozens of setting. You often have a larger setting (“The town of Shartlesburg!”) and many micro-settings within (“Pappy’s Hardware! The Egg-Timer Diner! The Shartlesburg Geriatric Sex Dungeon!”).

2. What Does It Do For You?

It props everything else up. It’s like the desk on which you write — it has function (it holds up all your writing tools, your liquor bottles, your Ukranian pornography), it has detail (the wood is nicked from where you got into that knife fight with that Bhutan assassin), it has an overall feel (the desk dominates the room, making everything else feel big — or perhaps the opposite is true, where the desk is crammed into the corner like you’re some third-rate citizen). Setting props up plot, character, theme, and atmosphere. And it gives the audience that critical sense of place and time so it doesn’t feel like she’s floating around in a big ol’ sensory-deprivation tank of recycled amniotic fluid. Which does not, despite its appearance, smell like bubble-gum.

3. Establish That Shit Early, Then Reveal Gradually

You don’t want to keep the reader in the dark as to the setting, because it’s disorienting and disconcerting. Even if the character on the page doesn’t know, you the author sure do, and it’s up to you to provide those hints (“She hears a church bell ringing and smells the heady stink of hobo musk”). You don’t need to spend two paragraphs outlining setting right from the get-go, though — we just need that filmic establishing shot to say, “Ohh, okay, we’re in a convenience store next door to an insane asylum. Boom, got it.” Then, as you write, you over time reveal more details about setting as they become important the story. Revealing setting should be a sexy striptease act. A little flash of skin that gradually uncovers the midriff, then the thighs, then the curve of the blouse baboons, then the OH MY GOD SHE HAS A TENTACLE IT’S GOT MY MMGPPHABRABglurk

4. Setting As Character

It may help to think of setting as just another character. It looks and acts a certain way. It may change over the course of the story. Other characters interact with it and have feelings about it that may not be entirely rational. Think about how, on those awful (and totally fake!) house hunting shows on HGTV someone’s always looking for a house “with character.” That means they want a house that is uniquely their own, that has, in a sense, a personality. And probably a poltergeist. Houses with character always have poltergeists. That’s a fact. I saw it on the BBC and British people cannot lie. It’s in their regal charter or something.

5. Paint In As Few Strokes As Possible

Play a game — go somewhere and describe it in as few details as possible. Keep whittling it down. See how you do. This is key for setting description (and, in fact, all description). Description must not overwhelm.

6. Exercise: Three Details And No More

Find any place at any time and use three details to describe it. You get to paint your image with three strokes and no more.

7. What Details? The Ones The Audience Needs To See

The details you choose are the ones that add to the overall story. Maybe they’re tied to the plot. Maybe they enhance the mood. Maybe they signal some aspect of the theme. Maybe offers a dash of humor at a time when the story really needs it. Each detail has text and subtext — the text is what it is (“a toilet”). The subtext is what it adds to the deeper story (“the toilet’s clogged and broken like everything else in this building, spilling water over the bowl rim” — saying this adds to the overall atmosphere and theme offered by the setting).

8. Abnormalities Are Your Friend

Another tip for finding out which details matter most: they’re the ones that break the status quo. It’s like this: I know what a Starbucks looks like. Or a pine forest. Or a men’s restroom. You don’t need to tell me that the restroom has a sink, a floor, a lightbulb, a toilet. You need to tell me there’s a mouse crawling around in the sink. That the fluorescent light above is flickering and buzzing like a bug zapper. You need to show me the weird guy sitting in stall three playing with himself while reading an issue of Field and Stream magazine. (“Oh. Yeah. I’m gonna stick it deeeeeep in your basshole.”) Show me the details that break my expectations. Those are the details that matter.

9. The Reader Will Do Work For You

No, I don’t mean the reader will come to your house and grout your kitchen. Or maybe they will? I should look into that. Anyway. What I’m saying is, the reader will fill in many of the details that you do not. In a variant of what I just said above, it’s your job to give the reader the details that she cannot supply for herself.

10. Description Should Be Active And Action-Based

Describe the setting as a character moves and operates through it — which means that it features action and takes into account that character’s point-of-view. You don’t introduce the Shartlesburg Geriatric Dungeon by giving a paragraph of setting description before the character even steps into the room. As the character sees it, the reader sees it. As the character picks up that riding crop that smells like Vicks Vaporub and horehound lozenges, the reader picks up the same.

(Check out the full “25 Things You Should Know About Setting” in the complete 500 More Ways To Be A Better Writer, available at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, and direct from this site.)

15 comments

  • Thank you for this post. Setting is something I’m still struggling with – first person setting descriptions are hard. I’m improving.

    You have added new dimensions to fishing 🙂

  • Terrific post, Chuck. I particularly like your suggestion of thinking of setting as a character and the importance of action-based descriptions. For those of us who aren’t very “into” setting, working with Mr./Ms. place seems like a great tool.

    I’d also say that going off the setting deep-end is a big time no. Some authors, like Daniel Woodrell, can masterfully build setting for pages on end and I dig it. Others have made me feel like I’m lost in a painting with no plot.

  • If any of your readers want to come grout my kitchen, I’ll pay them in beer. Good beer, I mean.
    Thanks for the post. The “three details” exercise looks especially useful.

  • I agree. That three sentence exercise looks fun. Knowing that I only have to describe the oddities in a setting helps as well.

    I realized something else while reading your article. I hate settings. 🙂 This explains my reluctance in describing them. (Hmmm. Yet another thing to analyze.)

  • Your website is a refreshing burst of affirmation. I agree with pretty much everything I read here. But the setting isn’t a character. It’s the setting.

    Oh, I know. I get it. I do. It’s a metaphor, dummy. A way of thinking that might be helpful. But I actually think setting is watered down by thinking of it as a character. Even in Lost, season 1, I wouldn’t say the island was a character. I’d say it was the setting. A haunted house. A dark and stormy night. Las Vegas. These places have their adjectives, their emotions. But they are not characters with volition. Character and setting are two different domains.

    Setting as character is up there among those heady, romanticized notions that non-writers tout around in writing circles in order to appear more awesome: “my characters are in control!” (no, they’re not); “I cannot write until the muses speak!” (sure you can) “Paris is a character on Woody’s new film!” (it isn’t a character, it’s the setting — and yes, that’s how important setting is).

    Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it DOES help to think of setting as character. I personally don’t think so. Setting, theme, spectacle, plot… these are not characters. They are setting, theme, spectacle and plot, each with their own functions and elements.

    P.S. Bought the e-book… waiting patiently.

  • This might have helped more then I will ever know. Since as I was reading this I was thinking of my beta draft of my own little micro story. I did not go into to much detail, but it could have used a little bit more here and there; as well as less in some other places. I feel a rewrite coming on or maybe I’ll just start a new part up. — Thanks Chuck!

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