Thursday, October 23, 2008

Writing Fiction: Session 7 - Setting

When preparing to write a novel, it's a toss-up whether to develop your setting or develop your plot first. I think you'll find yourself working on both at once. However, it's helpful to sketch out your setting and your plot in separate piles so you can keep track of the details.

First, let's talk about setting. Before you write your novel, you must choose and define your setting or settings. If this is your first book, I recommend that you keep your settings as simple as possible.

How many?

Some books take place in one room. Others use multiple locations. Because you have so much detail to keep straight just with telling your story, don't complicate your life by having your story jump from one location to the next every few pages. Remember, the more settings you have, the more details you'll have to manage. So, when plotting your novel, determine how many settings you'll use.

Details, details...

Next, you need to determine the amount of detail to include about each setting. This depends on the tone and pace of your novel, and it may vary within the novel. Is the detail needed? Is the detail part of the tone and the rhythm of your novel? We've all read those sweeping historical novels where part of the pleasure of reading them is luxuriating in the description of the rolling hills and the deep forests leading up to the grand plantation house.

In fast-paced novels, where the emphasis is on the action, you wouldn't want to slow down the action by describing the details of the surroundings. The villain, while he is fleeing the scene of the crime, won't have time to stop to contemplate the flowers in bloom along the side of the road. Your reader won't want that interruption either.

So, keep the pace of your book in mind. Only you, the author, can determine for your reader how much detail you want and how much detail will best serve the pace of your book.

Gathering and storing important setting information.

There are unlimited ways to gather and record the information about your settings that you'll need later while you're writing your novel. Here are a few:
  • Make a list of your settings as you develop your plot. Put the name of each setting on a piece of paper or note card (one card per setting). Jot down notes about the settings as they occur to you.
  • If a particular setting is indoors, draw a diagram of it similar to a blueprint of the room. Within the room, mark the doors and windows. And, draw rectangles, circles, squares, etc. to represent furniture.
  • Make a list of the items within the room and their significance to your story. Be as detailed as your novel requires.
  • Draw diagrams of other locations when necessary. For example, a diagram might serve you well if your characters go on an outdoor picnic in a secluded picnic area. John leads Brenda along a winding path. Draw a diagram of where John is leading Brenda and note that he turned right at the tree stump, so your readers will gasp when Brenda is running for her life and turns toward the cliff rather than toward safety. Details are important.

Maps and pictures.

If you're writing about a real city, obtain current maps of the area. This will ensure you'll accurately name the streets and describe the city locations. If your city is fictional, draw a map of it and name the streets, parks, downtown area, etc, so you'll be consistent as you describe the setting.

Another way to gather information is by taking pictures of pertinent landmarks, houses, furnishings, etc. With a digital camera, this is easy to do and inexpensive. You'll be able to ensure accuracy in your descriptions when you have pictures to refer to while you're writing.


Yes, we did talk about backstory in Session 6, but it's important to mention it again. Make notes, as detailed as you need, about the backstory for each setting before you start writing. If you're writing about a real location, get the pertinent history straight in your mind before writing. And, remember, you may be using an actual location, but not all your readers will be privy to the details. So make notes to work in salient details to bring your settings to life.


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