You're reading through the first draft of your story. You have an interesting protagonist, an engaging plot, and a terrific opening to hook your readers. You turn to page two, and it hits you: your scene takes place in "a room with white walls," or "a grassy field," or another of the cookie-cutter settings that can make an editor toss the story into the rejection pile.
Setting is one of the trickier elements of fiction. How much time should you spend describing the crenellations and gargoyles atop the castle wall, or the old-oil smell of the neighbor's garage? Too much description and the reader could lose track of the plot line. Too little, and your story takes place in a vacuum.
Readers are unlikely to buy into a story if they don't believe in the world where it takes place. It's not always easy to describe unique, engaging settings, especially in a first draft. What follows are some tips to help you in the process.
In college, my greatest fear was that I might disappear in the bowels of the university library like many a freshman before me. The library was a labyrinth with confusing colored tape trails on the floor. The wise freshman brought a three-day supply of food in case he got lost, as well as breadcrumbs with which to leave a trail.
Others, like myself, simply avoided the library. Instead, I wrote about settings I knew and invented details for the ones I didn't.
After a few dozen rejections, I wound up in the hospital with diabetes. I stayed there for three days, and when I got out, I returned to my computer to work on a story I had started a few months before — a story which happened to be set in a hospital.
This story had earned a number of rejections, and as I reread, I began to understand why. My made-up hospital was simply wrong. Beds and curtains and bustling nurses do not a hospital make. I added details that had stood out when I was a patient and used them to spice up the story. I talked about the over-moist pineapple cake I got at dinner and the cramped space around my bed where visitors barely had room to sit down. I described the IV tube that snaked around the rails of the bed and the smell of urine that wafted through the room every time my cathetered roommate opened the bathroom door. By the time I finished, that hospital was real. I printed it out, mailed it off, and voila — it was rejected by an editor who didn't like vampire stories.
It did sell to the next editor, however, becoming my second professional sale. Of course, life isn't always cooperative enough to provide real-world research for every story. Sure, I got lucky this time (if you could call it luck), but what about the next story?
For real-world settings, the Internet is one of the easiest places to do a bit of quick and dirty research. A search for "Paris, France," for example, summons up a number of more-or-less official sites that provide tourist information, maps, and history, all of which can add depth to your story. Not only that, but a search for the words "Paris trip" and "journal" calls up a number of personal journals describing school-sponsored trips and vacations. Between these two, you can find a good balance of information. Online journals are unreliable as a source of objective information, but they can add flavor.
Another option is to contact people directly. Most states, countries, and regions are happy to send travel and recreation information to potential tourists, often at no charge. If you know a person who has been to the location in question, so much the better! Many people are more than willing to talk you through their photo album if you identify yourself as a writer.
For more exotic settings, the library is a good place to start. Try to find a university library, if possible. Once there, immediately find a university librarian to help you find what you need. Librarians, as I eventually learned, are far more helpful than breadcrumbs.
Remember, you're not required to become the absolute authority. We're writing stories, not doctorate-level dissertations. In most cases, we don't want to spend too much time on the setting, since this can eventually distract a reader from the story. I've found it helpful to focus on two things: details and differences.
One approach to setting would be to describe everything from the color of the ceiling tiles in the restaurant to the clothes on the customers to every item on the menu behind the counter. Go on long enough, and any reader will know everything about the restaurant, including the exact color of the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, the average reader will have thrown the book across the room after page three and moved on to the latest Stephen King bestseller.
There's no room to talk about everything, especially if you're writing a short story. Instead, take a few moments and make a mental list of details about the last bar you visited. Think of the smells, the sounds, the decorations, the customers.
Rather than following the "kitchen sink" approach, pick out a few details that exemplify the setting.
There's a local bar where one spot of carpet is a brighter green than the rest, marking the spot where the manager used spray paint to hide a vomit stain. That one detail not only captures the atmosphere of the place, it also gives us a bit of insight into the manager.
One famous and oft-quoted example is Robert Heinlein's line, "The door irised open." Heinlein found a single detail that established the entire feel of his futuristic environment.
Usually, it takes more than one detail. Try to seek out details that engage at least two or three of the reader's senses. Visual details alone are less engaging than details that describe sight, texture, and sound.
In general, readers do about ninety-five percent of the work when it comes to description. If you provide those key details, the reader will do the rest.
Think of your local post office. What three details truly capture the feel of the place? That can be a bit tricky, since so many post offices tend to share a lot of the same details. A wall of PO boxes establishes the scene, but we could be in any one of a thousand post offices.
What makes your setting different? What detail makes this particular post office distinct from every other post office in the world?
I'm sitting in my cubicle at work as I work on this article. I don't need to describe everything to establish a sense of setting. It would be a waste of time for me to talk about the gray partitions or the oversized appointment calendar on the wall. Almost every cubicle in America shares similar features.
I need to find a way to make this place interesting. How does my cubicle stand out from the rest? Maybe it's the Mexican radio station playing on my supervisor's computer in the next cubicle. The array of Lego Star Wars models scattered around my work station is another possibility, one that gives a bit of insight into me as well. Or it could be the tiny black gnats who colonized the plants by the fax machine and like to crawl across the computer screens, looking like rogue pixels.
Think about difference in terms of your story. What makes your spaceship/castle/dark alley/bookstore/portable bathroom different? Choose the details that carry the most punch, the ones that make your setting stand out. Irising doors do establish setting, but these days, it's not enough. Lots of spaceships have irising doors. Instead, describe the fact that your space explorers are constantly tripping over rabbits scurrying through the halls of the ship, a result of defective DNA freezers back when it used to be a colony ship.
Be creative, but be careful as well. Make your details too unique or silly, and you've made an implicit promise to the reader that these details will be a relevant piece of the story. If you go with the space rabbits, your readers may legitimately expect the rabbits to come up later in the story. The details need to match the kind of story you write.
Esther Friesner wrote a series of comic fantasy novels in which she mentions various hamster-related beasts. The reader never encounters the evil super-hamsters, but because the books are comedies, and because these details aren't overused, they work to establish a world gone silly. Mention a rifle hanging on the wall while writing a murder mystery, on the other hand, and you had better make sure somebody gets shot.
Putting it All Together
What happens when setting gets glossed over in the writing process? If a writer isn't aware of setting, if we aren't consciously looking for details to help the reader know this place, we fall back on stereotypes and clichés. This is both forgivable and normal, right up to the point where we submit the story. After all, we're trying to keep track of characters and plot and voice and the rest of it; setting can easily slip through the cracks.
Discovering the setting can be one of the joys of revision. It's a way to add depth and creativity to a story. In other cases, when setting is more central to the plot, world-building might be the first step in the writing process. Like most other aspects of writing, there is no one right way to create setting.
When we skimp on setting, we tend to fall back on things we've read before. One of my first science fiction stories took place on a ship which, upon looking back, seems remarkably familiar. I can almost hear the characters proclaiming their need to "seek out new life and new civilizations."
Read through your story and ask, "Have I ever read a story that takes place in this setting, or is this world truly unique?"
If it's the former, it's probably time to do a bit of research.
It's not that hard, and you almost never have to check in to the hospital.
*reprinted with permission from author