Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 25, 2011

Setting Up the Setting

If you ask writers to list the most important elements in a short story or novel, characters and plot would top the list. Writers worry about crafting well-rounded, complex characters and plausible plot events, about voice and point of view, about conflict and theme, style and tone. Although setting usually places among the top three elements of fiction, writers sometimes concentrate so intently on the other elements that they forget about the importance of the setting.

Setting is often a subtle element. While it occasionally plays a crucial role — like the storm at sea that causes the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe — the setting more often forms the background for the words and thoughts and actions of the characters and the events of the plot. A well-crafted setting often remains on the periphery, framing, supporting, and enhancing the action. That is as it should be.

When an author fails to pay enough attention to the setting, however, inconsistencies and omissions arise that call themselves to the reader’s attention. An ill-crafted setting can bring the reading of a fast-paced story to a halt and pull the reader right out of the action. A writer needs to pay as much attention to the setting as to any main character.

I admit I’m picky about the details in what I read. When I read a short story or novel, problems with the setting of a story pop out at me like red flags. Each red flag is an annoying interruption to the flow of the story; too many red flags and I may put the story aside for good.

As an editor, I’ve noticed three areas where writers can fall short in crafting the element of setting.

1. Inconsistency: this occurs when some part of the description of a place changes without cause.

Some examples of inconsistency that I have encountered: a town is surrounded by rocky desert when characters first visit it, but on a later journey they travel through a dense forest to get there; a village is walled by a wooden palisade when characters enter it but by a stone wall when they leave; a lounge chair is red the first time a character sits in it but in a later chapter is brown leather (if it’s been reupholstered, make that clear to the reader).

A novel takes a long time to write, and an author may forget some of the details of a place during that time, but this kind of inconsistency is easy to avoid. As you write your story or novel, write out a thorough description of each setting you use — just as you write out a detailed character description. Include every detail of the setting, what objects are there, what they look like, the dimensions, and the scents and sounds and textures as well. Not all these details will appear in your story, but laying them out will give you a clear vision of the place that enables you to make it real for your readers. Each time you write a new scene which occurs in this location, refer back to the file describing that setting. That will refresh your memory of the place so you will not make the mistake of inconsistency.

2. Serendipity: this occurs when an object or an aspect not previously in the setting conveniently appears when the character needs it.

For example: a large aquarium, not mentioned in the description of a room when the main character arrives, is broken in a fight scene; a woman who needs a pair of scissors just happens to have one in her purse (and we are belatedly told that she had fortunately stuffed them in when she left home); an innocuous office worker confronted by a murderous criminal just happens to have gun in her desk.

There is an implicit agreement between author and reader that the author will set the stage for later action by including the mention of a key item in the initial description of that particular setting and will not spring its presence on the reader only when a character needs or uses it. The sudden, convenient appearance of an aquarium, scissors, or gun brings me, the reader, to a halt long enough to wonder, “Where did that come from?” When I come across such serendipity in a story, I feel surprised and disappointed, and I sometimes laugh — and those are not reactions you want from your reader.

To avoid this problem in your writing, each time your characters need some item or aspect not previously included in that setting, just go back to where the particular location is first described and insert the vital object/aspect in the description — and add it to the separate file of your description of that location.

3. Inadequate envisioning: this occurs when a character’s action would be awkward or not possible in the setting described.

For instance: a living room is described as having a big sofa in front of the window, yet a character later walks to the window and looks out without having to climb onto or lean over this sofa; an outdoor night setting is lit only by a torch behind a stranger, yet the main character (who, unless he’s Superman, lacks x-ray vision) can see every detail of the stranger’s face and clothing; a loud band is playing in a crowded bar, yet the two characters sitting at a table across from one another have no trouble hearing each other without shouting.

Eliminating this type of setting error is trickier. The error in the first example could be avoided if the author maps out the room and the movements of the characters in it. To prevent the errors in the other two examples, an author has to envision or even recreate the setting to ensure that what is described is plausible.

With consistency in the details, planning, and careful envisioning, the setting can work effectively to enhance and frame your story — so give the setting as much attention as you give your characters and plot.

Have you noticed setting inconsistencies in any of the stories or novels you’ve read? What methods do you use to avoid setting errors?

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Responses

  1. Great post. Setting is a really important piece that can be overlooked, and like you, I’ll notice the little details. This is where my crit partner came in really handy. I’d read my MS so many times I missed some inconsistencies in my MC’s house.

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    • You’re right, Stacy! Having a critique partner or two is essential. We’re so familiar with our own stories that we miss things that are obvious to someone else. Fresh eyes on a manuscript are invaluable.

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  2. I know I’m new here, but doesn’t anyone outline their stories anymore? I have too!

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    • Hi Jerylyn! Welcome!

      Outlining is going to be the topic of my next post, but you’ll have to wait five weeks for that because the five of us take turns doing the Tuesday post.

      Do you include details of the setting in your outline? I think many writers’ outlines just focus on events and are more an expression of the element of plot than any of the other elements of fiction.

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  3. Excellent points, Judy. Sometimes Setting inconsistencies like the ones you mention are easily fixed during a revision; sometimes they require painstaking research to sanity check setting details if the writer is not already intimately familiar with them.

    I recently wrote a piece of short fiction where the story line was taking a small boat and it’s two occupants into the teeth of an impending hurricane. The trick for me was to know the limitations of my craft in relation to the size of the waves it would reasonably be able to navigate before being swamped.

    Not a boater, nor familiar with this type of maratime information, I had to interview a few of my boating enthusiast friends to get their take on the situation and look at a bunch of YouTube videos of boats in rough seas before seetling on these particular parameters of my setting.

    I knew if I got these details wrong, a reader with boating experience would immediately been bounced right out of my story, never giving the actual storyline the chance to pan out.

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    • Thanks, Don. You’re right about incorrect details bouncing knowledgeable readers out of a story; that’s something we certainly don’t want to happen! It may be fiction, but it has to be as accurate as possible.

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