Setting It Down (TCWT)

Setting It Down (TCWT)

Before I start this month’s TCWT blog chain, I’d like to apologise to John and Allegra, whose stories from last month I have not yet commented on. I intend to do so this weekend or this afternoon! And if any of you are thinking that the chain has come around quickly, I was at the end of it last time and now I’m near the beginning. So it’s only been a couple of weeks.

“How much does setting affect your novels and stories? What are some of your favorite ways to portray setting?”

This question actually came at a good time for me, because although I was initially unsure if I’d find something to say about it, I’ve been doing some reading this week for Cathryn, my critique partner, and it’s one of the main comments I’ve had. She hasn’t seen them yet, so I won’t go into detail, but it’s prompted a few thoughts.

Firstly, setting isn’t usually my primary focus, but it is important. If someone tries to assassinate your main character in a field in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t matter, because no one knows, and it’s not going to have long-term repercussions on any of the other characters. If it happens in a public park, people are going to see it, it’s going to get reported to the police, and then they’re going to get involved and you’ve got a subplot.

Similarly, part of my current WIP takes place in the fairy world, which means I had to think about describing that, as it’s a very alien culture, society and landscape. The most important thing was to highlight its differences and assume that everything else worked like the human world, minimising how much description the reader had to trudge through.

As for how I show setting…

A while ago I read a post called “5 things you should do on the first page of your YA novel”. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link, because I’m on a school computer (private study periods are great for blogging), but you’ll probably find it if you google it.

By the end of the first page, they counselled, we should know the setting. We should know vaguely where we are, and we should definitely know the time period. If it’s another world, I suppose you’d want to know vaguely what sort of technology they had, in order to guesstimate the time period equivalent in our world. They then went on to give some examples of how to show setting without ‘telling’, but here are my thoughts:

Put your character somewhere that clearly screams the time period.

I want to know, when I’m reading, whether a book is modern or historical, realistic or fantastical. So if the character is waiting for a bus and fiddling with their phone, I know it’s modern. If they’re struggling to mount a horse in a long dress, it’s historical.

Have your characters identify the location for you.

You have to be careful not to info-dump with this technique, but it can be done. In ‘Watching’, the novel I’ve been working on rewriting and editing for a couple of years now (intermittently), we start with Alex waking up in a skip. He has no idea where he is, and we’re reading from his point of view, so we’re going to see his thought process as he tries to identify his surroundings. Cars, bus stops, a road sign. He’s in modern-day South East London. We know this, because he had to work it out.

When we meet Jennie, she’s commenting on how few people from her old school are at her sixth-form college, so we know she’s at school. We’ve also got the added bonus of knowing how old she is, as she’s just moved into sixth form – she’s sixteen going on seventeen.

Think about the weather.

I think the most interesting way to describe surroundings and location is to think about how the weather affects it. If it’s snowing, you can comment that ‘the tennis courts were buried beneath a foot of snow’, and we know that there are tennis courts. If it’s raining, you can point out the ‘glow of the street lights reflected in the puddles that had formed every few feet along the pavement’ – we’re walking down the street, it’s night time, and it is raining, or at least has been recently.

Colour is important.

I don’t tend to have a concrete image in my head of where things are taking place when I’m reading, but I tend to have shapes and colours. So I want to know if the inside of the car is cream or black. I want to know if the pavement is formed of different coloured paving stones or whether it’s grey concrete. Little details, I’d argue, are important.

How does your character react to setting?

Perhaps they hate buses because of the people. Perhaps they love them and enjoy the energy. Now we know if they’re introverted or not.

Perhaps they avoid every crack in the pavement, or perhaps they make a point to step on every crunchy leaf. The former will tell us that they’re superstitious or just plain OCD; the latter gives them a childlike nature without ever expressly saying so.

This is the most important thing, I think. If a character is apprehensive about school, that will likely tell us as much about the nature of the school than it does about the personality of the character. It’s probably rough. Perhaps they’re bullied. Perhaps the teachers are strict. If a character clutches keys in their hand when they walk alone at night, they’re likely in a relatively isolated area, close to some rough districts (or they’re just paranoid).

In conclusion, setting is important, but what is more important is how the character reacts to the setting, and that can not only describe their surroundings, but also move the plot along, and give us an insight into their mind.

The end :D

Want to follow our blog chain? Here are the participating parties, day by day

September 5– –Musings From Neville’s Navel

September 6––Olivia’s Opinions

September 7––Miriam Joy Writes

September 8––Kirsten Writes!

September 9––Beyond the Moon

September 10––Crazy Red Pen

September 11––The Ebony Quill

September 12––Reality Is Imaginary

September 13––This Page Intentionally Left Blank

September 14––The Incessant Droning of a Bored Writer

September 15––All I Need Is A Keyboard

September 16––Teens Can Write, Too! (We will be announcing the topic for next month’s chain)

12 thoughts on “Setting It Down (TCWT)

  1. Hmm, you went down a completely different path from me! (Metaphorically speaking.) I like reading all the TCWT posts because everyone has such different ideas. And then I get like. O_o “Why didn’t *I* think of this? It seems so obvious!” xD

    1. I know that feeling! Everyone always interprets the prompts so differently, it’s very interesting. I recently tried a similar experiment where I sent lyrics I’d written to my brother and a friend, both of whom write songs, sing, and play guitar. My brother sent something back, and I’m just waiting on the other one. It’ll be interesting to see how different the two interpretations of the same lyrics are.

  2. Awesome post – and those five tips are great! I love describing setting, but sometimes I know I go a little overboard, or don’t do enough. Hopefully those markers will give me something to bash my proverbial head agains, hehe!

    1. I haven’t read any of your work recently, but I remember you being very fond of mud in the version of your novel that I read (Warrior, it was called at the time). Lots of mud. In great detail. :D

  3. *Note: ‘Obvious’ doesn’t mean stupid, as in an idea for a post was so well-known that there wasn’t any point in writing it. I mean that I think, “Yes…. ooh, yeah! And I agree with _____.” when I read the post and then I’m wondering how that idea never crossed my mind. *sighs* I’m forever wondering why stuff has never crossed my mind before.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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