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Stir Up Your Setting–Finding a Happy Medium

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Yesterday, I finished judging the last of TWELVE entries for the American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Contest for Unpublished Authors. I judged two categories, and was impressed by the level of craft I saw in most of the seven YA entries—more than in the five romance entries. Because of this series on Settings, I really paid close attention to how each writer developed his/her setting in the twenty-five pages I saw . . . and they fell pretty evenly into thirds:

Not enough setting. One-third didn’t give enough information about the setting—the geographic location (especially important for scenes occurring outside, when there is “unseasonable” or “strange” weather, or when a character has moved to a new city/state and we know where they came from but not where they now are), the physical location (it’s a school, but what does it look like? A suburban neighborhood—but is it full of small 1940s saltbox houses or 1990s starter mansions?), or location of the character or objects in the environment (first she’s leaning over the edge of a precipice looking down, then she’s climbing up to escape something chasing her). I found myself writing comments like “Where is this taking place?” and “How did he get from (point A) to (point B)?” Or the entry had confusing descriptions—sparse in several places and then suddenly laden with adjectives and poetic descriptions of landscape which then ended up being confusing because I didn’t know whose POV it was being seen through and didn’t know what the characters were doing.

Too much setting. Much of this came in the form of what I’ve mentioned in this discussion already: stopping the forward momentum of the story to give an inventory of everything in the room or the vista the characters see as they top the last hill. This is where we can also get into trouble taking the “be specific” advice to the extreme. Instead of just writing “she jumped in the car and peeled out of the parking lot,” it’s more along the lines of: “She ran to the car and fit her key into the keyhole in the door of the dark green Pontiac G6 coupe. The lock clicked open and she lifted the door handle to yank the door open. She turned and slid her right leg in the car first, her rear-end sliding across the leather seat with ease, drew her left foot in, and slammed the door–in which was the panel holding the controls for the power windows, door locks, mirrors, and driver’s seat adjustments. She poked the key into the ignition, turned it to the right, and engaged the engine. With her foot on the brake—because the car required the brake be engaged to be able to put it into gear—she pressed the button on the gear shifter with her right thumb and jerked the stick down to the R-position. Without looking behind her, she took her foot off the brake and positioned it on the accelerator and pressed down hard. The car backed out of the space faster than was safe. Once out of the space, she put her foot on the brake again and shifted the car into drive. She stomped her foot on the accelerator and the car lurched forward, tires making a squealing sound against the pavement.” (Did you make it reading this far? If so, good on ya!) That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I think you get my point. In some instances, we need to give the reader the benefit of the doubt that they understand what it means when we write that the character got in the car and peeled out of the parking lot (This also ties in with Showing vs. Telling too. Sometimes, it’s okay to tell when it’s the difference between a twelve word sentence that keeps the action moving and an entire paragraph that brings the action to a screeching halt.)

I have a tendency to be a “too much setting” writer. Almost everything I’ve written in the past twenty or so years has been set in my fictional Louisiana city. When I first started letting anyone (my mom and grandmother) read what I’d written, one of my mom’s comment was that she wished I would include more about the setting because she wasn’t getting a good feel for it. That’s when I started studying this element of craft. I started finding places where I could interject tidbits about the setting. And then, once people started commenting on how much they liked it, I wanted to put more in (you know, if they like it a little, they’ll like it a lot, right?). This happened as I started writing my historical which is set partially aboard a ship-of-the-line in the Royal Navy and partially in Portsmouth, England, of 1814. I’d done my research and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. The problem with it turned out to be that I used too much authentic setting and the terminology and importance placed on certain locations or objects detracted from the story. So I learned there has to be . . .

A happy medium. This is when there’s just enough setting to really round the reader in the “here and now” of the story so they can picture the action in their head, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming or confusing. This varies from genre to genre. A happy medium of setting in a Fantasy novel is going to be much different than a happy medium of setting for a romantic comedy. Some genres naturally call for more description of the setting (incorporated into the narrative appropriately, of course), such as Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historicals (including historical romance), and Crime/Mystery.

How do we reach this happy medium? Two ways:

Read, read, read. Read your favorite novels over again, taking note of how the author handles giving information about the setting. Caution: if it is a book that was not published in the last five to ten years, you are more likely to find the “block style” descriptions (walk in a room and give an inventory) than you will in more recent books as the industry has hightened the standards on this area of craft. Find newly published novels (preferably by lesser-known authors than someone like Steven King, Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele—meaning they’ve had to go through a more strenuous editorial process) and compare how different authors incorporate setting. Do you like it? Would you have done it differently? Was it too much? Not enough? Just right?

Join a critique group. While we all hope we’re good judges of our own writing, the truth is WE’RE NOT. Just like parents can’t see when their own children are little heathens, but are quick to point it out in other families, it’s hard for us to see our own work criticially and with an objective eye. That’s what critique partners are for. Want to know more about the benefits of being in a critique group? Check out my series on critiquing.

Before closing this topic, I’d like to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. If there’s a specific aspect of setting you’re having difficulty with, please leave a comment and we’ll continue on. If not, I’ll be starting a new series: Back to Basics—Common Mistakes in Grammar and Manuscript Formattting. (If you have any questions on that topic, please post those too.)

  1. Wednesday, May 16, 2007 12:06 pm

    Kaye, this series was amazing. Now I’ve got to find time to go back over all the previous series, while keeping up with the new stuff.

    I still find a wide breadth, in recent romance novels at least, as far as incorporating setting. I’m talking multi-published authors who give the room inventory as frequently as do newbies. Or, I’m left scratching my head trying to figure out where the story is happening (state, city, locale, part of house, etc.) So it’s kind of hard to get a good feel.



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