How not to set the stage


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How many times have you picked up a promising book based on an appealing cover design and an evocative title only to be disappointed a few pages into the first chapter because you don’t feel properly oriented to the time and place of the story?  Or on the other extreme, the author spends the first several pages describing not only the immediate setting of the story, but its history as well?

What is it that bothers us in these stories?  Even if we don’t recognize the flaw as being the setting itself, what signs point to either a too heavy hand or a too light hand in revealing the setting?  As we all know, according to Wikipedia: “A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place.”  Without setting, the characters act out their parts on an empty stage, a blank canvas, with no context for their actions.

For writers and readers of epic fantasy fiction and other speculative genres, setting is especially important for a new and different world needs to be explained to the reader so the story will make sense.  Again, I ask how is this done?  Rather than give a list of all the things you should do in your writing, or all the things that you shouldn’t see when you read a well written story, I’m going to do the opposite.

If you read or write any of the following (in no particular order), you will have successfully discovered bad examples of setting.

  • Assume the reader has seen all the science fiction or fantasy movies and does not need the flora, fauna, architecture, or weather described.  Let the reader imagine EVERYTHING, because after all, aren’t speculative fiction fans the savviest readers?  Everyone knows what an alien or a dragon or a sword looks like.  Why waste precious story time on describing such common things?
  • Readers don’t have an imagination and need everything described to them in infinitesimal detail.  How could a reader possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig, termite, and root.  Don’t forget the special way the wind blows through this tree and how it sways as if dancing to an inner tree music.  Remember to point out the way light catches on the silvery bark at sunrise and the seventeen distinct insects and animals that inhabit the tree in various ways.  The readers want to know all this.  A story about the trees and insects is more interesting than one about people and their struggles, right?
  • Why not make it easy on the reader and use phrases and descriptions that everyone already knows so the story can focus on the characters and plot.?  “Dark and stormy night”, “thick as pea soup”, “pretty as a picture”, “deep blue sea”, “smooth as glass”, and “quiet as a mouse” and dozens of others will do the trick nicely.  Why make it hard on everyone?  Use as many clichés as possible so that your setting is as clear as the blue sky.
  • Keep your thesaurus handy because the only words that truly describe the setting in the story are those obscure terms that no one uses or recognizes anymore.  Don’t they have just the perfect pitch of meaning for what is intended and doesn’t everyone want to learn new words while reading a story?  Doesn’t everyone like stopping in the middle of a scene to look up a word that make no sense to them?
  • Don’t bother with world-building, it is a waste of your precious writing time.  A time efficient writer, doesn’t lose hours in research.  Write the story and make up anything that you don’t know about castle drawbridges or the speed of horses or the winter weather patterns in a northern climate in mid-winter.  Readers and editors are forgiving.  No one will mind if the horse in your story can run eighty  miles an hour when real ones can only run in the forties.
  • Ensure that not a single fact of your two-year world-building binge is lost.  It is essential that the reader know every fact about everything you’ve researched or developed for your world.  And why not?  Your world is so unique that no one could possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig and root AND make sure the exotic name you’ve concocted for oak tree, “egetræ”, becomes part of the reader’s vocabulary.  (For the record, “egetræ” actually means oak tree in Danish.)  You can’t possibly let a single bit of your research be lost, it must end up in the story to justify the time spent.

You’ll notice the bullets above are listed by pairs of opposite extremes.  If any of the above are happening in stories you are reading or are writing then you may be experiencing some examples of how not to write setting.

I’m personally guilty of the fourth bullet about using the thesaurus.  One reviewer in my writers group called me on this in the Prologue and Chapter One of my current novel in progress.  Needless to say, I’ve corrected the problem using more normal words.  Ironically, the meaning wasn’t lost.

Do you have any examples that stand out to you?


2 responses to “How not to set the stage

  • butchie34

    Hey Mark

    I have to say and many people will HATE me for saying it. But the Wheel of Time is an example of over-description. The first three books of the series were brilliant and Robert Jordan found exactly the right amount of description and setting for my tastes. But from Book Four, Shadow Rising, it felt as though he whipped out the thesaurus and tried to explain everything to the nth degree. I’ve pushed myself to Book Nine but have to take a break from the series because his descriptions seem to get more and more intricate with every book when I want the plot to advance.

    I think I have the opposite “problem” to yours where I leave a lot to the readers’ imagination.

  • MJT

    I will actually agree with you on The Wheel of Time series…I really struggled with books four through six. I stalled out at book ten and am on a two year break.

    In my own writing, I’ve learned through the writers group to peel away the thesaurus inspired words and to just stick with clear and meaningful descriptions. Whether I succeed or not remains to be seen, but as long as my craft improves and I don’t repeat mistakes, I’m happy.

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