Setting the Scene in Fiction Writing


by Amanda Marsico

Essay-writing season is dwindling down and there are only a few more weeks of classes left which means I get to share another set of tips and insights from the 2013 James River Writers Conference. In the third session I attended, Kathryn Erskine, Elizabeth Huergo, and Dean King, led by moderator Gigi Amateau, discussed creating settings. Here are the key points about making a vital and purposeful setting in fiction writing:

1. Setting is a character. It says, “I am the place where something has occurred.” It can be sparse in physical description while rich in other senses. It can have a personality of sorts that incites a certain type of reaction from human characters, and can even be the driving force behind  characters’ motivations. For example, a setting at a movie theater might act as an instigator for protagonist girl X and antagonist guy Y to get a little close in the dark. Maybe the plot changes here and he’s not really such a bad guy after all. Maybe that first kiss during credits is messing with her head and he IS a bad guy. What if the setting is coastal and a hurricane blows through? That beach or ocean could take on almost human characteristics, rolling, recoiling, breaking to the storm. How does this make characters move? Do the characters show sympathy to the land for the beating it takes? You get my point.

2. Literature that feels familiar across cultures and nationalities can still be respectful of each when the setting is appropriately described. Avoid generalizations. Do real research. Get feedback on your description of certain people and places from readers in that demographic, people who know from first-hand, real-life experience what you’re trying to describe. Have them tell you if you’re wrong or offensive, or if you’ve gotten it right.

3. Present Absence is just as profound as a physical setting. I’m aware of how much an oxymoron that is. Think of it this way: Present Absence is the permeating sense of something missing. A setting that’s missing can have a huge impact on a character’s life. Maybe the character is living in a foster home. The nagging presence of a setting that is actually absent—a home, a family, a bedroom all her own—can alter the way your character thinks, feels, interacts with others, etc. This missing setting is no less a setting because the character has not attained it. Often it’s this missing place that is one of the character’s main goals and motivations which drives the plot.

4. Just as setting can be something absent, it can be intangible. Setting is not just place, but time. Think about the narrative structure around longing, waiting, forgetting, remembering. Time is what makes all of these concepts exist. Sure, the character involved in these things will likely be in a physical space as well, unless you happen to be writing some type of space-time-continuum story where the characters exist outside of that. But, it’s ok for there to be time AND place. No one said writers had to pick one setting and stick to it. Very few novels successfully occur in one place for the entire story.

5. Place/setting evokes memory which is an easy way to get characters and readers to connect.

6. If you’re writing specifics of a location, get maps. Also, if you plan to travel for research, decide what you’re looking for and what you’re hoping to learn before you go. It sounds like common sense, but you wouldn’t want to get caught up in irrelevant details (and that’s easy to do if you’re touring a new and beautiful location). The best suggestion given in the session in regards to travel was to take a manuscript and any previously completed formal research with you. Refer to spots in the manuscript that are missing that something and write in details directly where they belong in the story as you learn them. It was also suggested to find a travel sponsor to help with the trip. You may be able to do documentary-type travel writing with the info you gather, cover your travel costs, and still get that info for your novel.

7. Understand your setting from your character’s point of view, not your own.

Hope you all are making progress on any projects you’ve started, and that these insights are as useful to you as they were to me. If you like these tips, be sure to check out the first two installments here and here. Thanks for reading and, as always,

Happy writing!