Pro-Tip: Setting

5 Oct

It’s important to ground your writing in a time and place. This isn’t just for fiction writers, either. Every discourse needs a context. It’s not enough just to say that someone is in Philly on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, that is a place and time, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about the larger scope of the scenario. Is this past, present, or future? Go beyond that, as well. If your character is in Chicago in the present, but your narrative flashes back three years to that time she visited Quebec, you’ll still need to tell the reader when NOW is and when THREE YEARS AGO was. Is NOW actually now, 2015? Or, is the NOW in your story 1955? From that point, the flashbacks and flashforwards will be greatly impacted. 2012 was a lot different than 1952. So, while visual (and other sensory) descriptions of your setting are very important in order for the reader to get a sense of what physically surrounds the characters, that setting isn’t just floating in some ambiguous time in history.

Example: Marley and Chris rounded the corner of 5th Avenue to hail a cab. It was a beautiful summer day, and there were lots of people about. Chris stepped to the littered curb and coolly signaled the yellow minivan. When it skimmed the sidewalk, leaves and papers rustled past. Marley approached, lost in thoughts of three years earlier. Not much around her had changed. The air smelled the same—hot, vaguely polluted, with mingled aromas of ethnic foods—and the buildings around her still stood watching in their fading brick skins. Beneath that, though, deeper, where the city had no jurisdiction over her thoughts, autumn was creeping in, and with it the rusty color-change of her feelings for Chris. Leaves drying before a fall.

Now, the paragraph above has a physical and geographical setting. It has a seasonal setting. It has sensory details about where they are currently, where they were three years before, and how that is impacting her emotionally. However, this paragraph would not be able to hold its own in a novel if this were the only indication of time and place. There are no markers to tell me when NOW and THREE YEARS AGO actually happened. The inclusion of a vehicle gives a better indication of NOW, but it still isn’t exact. We also can’t tell how old they are. Old enough to have been in a relationship for three years, but that still leaves a lot of options.
If this were a scene in the middle of a novel where those factors in question had already been established, there would, of course, be no need to repeat that information. If Marley frequently flashes back to three years ago, and that year was detailed in depth during the first flash back, it would be redundant to dig up those details every time. A casual reference of this kind would suffice.

The take-away, then, is situational. If you’re placing characters for the first time, the reader needs to know enough about that moment to ground them in the geography and era. You don’t want your readers imagining your futuristic, silicone body suit-wearing protagonist in a 1920s flapper dress. I assume. The pictures we imagine as we read are informed by what the author chooses to disclose. If you want a certain conclusion reached, or in this case a certain visual, lead the reader to it. Assess your situation scene by scene. Decide if you need that additional information or if it would be redundant to include it. Write accordingly.

And remember, this isn’t just for fiction despite my first example. A research paper, a piece of journalism, and editorial, a blog all need a context. It might be sufficient to say of a blog piece, “I’m on my couch with the cats writing this to you now.” A blog post will be time-stamped by the hosting website. Readers will know when NOW actually happened. An editorial on a great new restaurant might need more. “In order to miss the dinner crowd, I ate at Chez New Restaurant with my husband at 4pm. They just opened a week ago, which is a shame because opening a week earlier could have earned them the last of the summer vacationers, but I digress. We ordered the…” You get where I’m going with this. Without being overly detailed, the reader sees that I ate dinner, but early in the day, and that the restaurant is new as of the end of summer/early fall. Even without a specific date in the narrative, it gives a clear picture of the setting/season. I won’t bore you with more examples; the point is clear. Assess your scenario and the need-to-knows of your readers. Premeditate their questions and answer in advance by being detailed.

How do you ground your readers in a setting? I’d love to hear your methods in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Join me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

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3 Responses to “Pro-Tip: Setting”

  1. Donna Roberts October 5, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    This is great! I keep all of your writing tips. You should consider doing writing workshops.

    • marsicowritesite October 5, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

      Thanks! I have considered that, actually. Ideally, I’d teach them as 6 or 8 week enrichment courses at Brookgreen Gardens. They’d be similar to my other writing classes, but without the grades and formality of it all. More like a structured collaborative writing workshop.

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