Yes, I love having the characters interact with their surroundings. It emphasizes the atmosphere and mood, it also sets the rules for the story and direction of plot. it can help provide an indirect focus, (mis)placement and character insight.
I world build on cultures and climate and anything that explains the workings of the mechanics like sorcery and science or anything quirky or essential of the area/people the characters are interacting with.
Setting is the stage of the story. To me it is important to make the scenery as vivid as I can without it turning into an info dump or useless description. However, with no setting, there is very little to provide evidence or enforce the plot besides directly telling the reader and/or characters (which usually comes off as demeaning, simplistic and gives away too much story). I like to describe or have the characters comment on things like weather, little annoyances/ gems in the setting. Just how they interact or focus with the setting gives a sense of (mis)placement and character insight that can tip the reader off to something relevant to the story. I have characters interact with their setting as much as I can manage. A movie or even a short film with a blank background does nothing to enhance the point. The same applies with no setting in literature.
I like my characters to use setting to their perspective, that way the reader which may overlook (in both senses of the word) anything, something and everything.
I like to describe or have the characters comment on things like weather, little annoyances/ gems in the setting... This is a good point. I like how you bring up other ways to show the setting besides description, which is where I think most people's brains immediately go when they think about the role of setting. The only thing I think you have to be careful about with dialogue is making those little comments about the weather and what-not seem natural, not just the writer transparently conveying setting. But the same is true for any other detail conveyed through dialogue.
I am going to nitpick a bit on this point: A movie or even a short film with a blank background does nothing to enhance the point. While I agree for the most part, there are cases in which a minimal setting can enhance the point, depending on what the point is. But even a minimal setting is, I suppose, a setting. Waiting for Godot comes to mind as an example.
'The only thing I think you have to be careful about with dialogue is making those little comments about the weather and what-not seem natural, not just the writer transparently conveying setting.' I include internal dialogue with the definition of 'comment, sorry about that omitted detail. True enough, that random commentary can come off as a voice-over for the writer's intentions.
Thank you for the nitpicking, I forgot about minimalistic setting can enhance the mood also, it all depends on the focus I suppose.
Do you think much about the setting when you write a story? If so, to what extent does it impact the story? If not, why not?
Most of the time I probably don't. Especially not for short stories. Most of the time I have one particular idea--frequently some sort of joke--and the setting is just a tool for fleshing it out and placing it somewhere that feels solid, if not necessarily realistic. For novels I think about the setting much more, but probably not disproportionately more. A setting for a story is a little like a hotel room: If you're just staying overnight, there's little point unpacking. If you're going to be there for more than a week, however, you might as well make yourself at home.
If you've ever written a fantasy or science fiction story, how deeply do you build the world? And then how do you establish the setting in your story? Do you feel like you need to show your work? And how much do you think about the setting on a smaller, more personal scale?
I've got one science fiction novel (Inhuman Resources) and one fantasy one (Face of Glass) in the works at the moment. For Inhuman Resources, I wanted the setting to be detailed enough to almost act as a character in itself: since the story takes place in a city that's been been abandoned for twenty years, and none of the main characters were around before then, the setting is my main way of showing what the past was like. I've picked an area I'm familiar with, mostly just to force myself to keep it realistic, but I'm also hoping that it'll be particularly meaningful to people who recognise it. In that respect, I guess I do feel a need to show my work. I think one reason for that is that the characters spend so much time "at home" or visiting the same handful of places: the smaller, more personal scale you mention. If they were on an epic journey to destroy the One Ring, I'd probably pay far less attention to whatever they were trudging over.
With Face of Glass, however, I very much took my usual approach to setting. It's mostly just a background. I do have it planned out deeper than the novel might suggest, but I don't see any need to include details that won't affect the story.
Lastly, how does setting impact your characters or plot? Or do you think they impact those elements at all? Why or why not? Has thinking more about the setting and connecting the plot and characters to it ever helped you through a tough spot in the planning or the writing?
Most of the time, I don't find the setting affecting plot/characters beyond the need to keep things plausible. However, Face of Glass was originally going to be set in a standard medieval European style fantasy world with a generic invading empire who want to conquer everything. I wouldn't have made it sound that bad in the actual thing, but the overall idea was a little lacklustre. Once I considered that I could have it set on a volcanic island with stone age tribes, a lot of other pieces clicked together. Instead of an entire empire, the antagonist could be one exploitative trader: some tribes would initially choose to farm cash crops in exchange for steel weapons, but then others would have to fight to prevent him from becoming a tyrant, ruling the entire island. Despite not actually doing much in the novel itself, the choice of setting had a huge influence on how the whole thing came together originally.
Bonus question: I forgot to mention the use of mood and atmosphere in relation to setting. This is a big one for me. But how much does it matter to you?
Kind of going back to the first point, that's often all I think about with settings. Especially with short stories. I'd much rather hint at a few specific details that set the scene than cram a lovingly crafted world where there's no room for it.
I generally agree with you about short stories, although the last two short stories I wrote involved more research/planning of setting than usual. Setting still matters, but much like the characters, you don't need to do as much in-depth planning or explanation. A general idea and a few hints can often be enough.
...I wanted the setting to be detailed enough to almost act as a character in itself... I love this idea and have dealt with it in a number of stories, actually. The concept of Inhuman Resources sounds interesting.
Most of the time, I don't find the setting affecting plot/characters beyond the need to keep things plausible. This is a good point. Although part of what I'm thinking here is that time, place, the society we live in, all have an impact on the way we live, think, etc., often without our full awareness of the impact. I make all sorts of decisions on a daily basis in relation to these things. Like, yesterday, I drove to the bank and then the drug store, which are only a few blocks from my house on a particular street in Kansas City. This is setting, and a lot has already been implied by the simple act of running errands. Maybe I'm over-analyzing, but it's something to consider.
I'd much rather hint at a few specific details that set the scene than cram a lovingly crafted world where there's no room for it. This. Definitely.
Now that you mention it, setting does seem to have a lot of little knock-on effects. When I went to university, that was the first time I'd lived in a properly urban area. The towns around where I live now feel small in comparison, and it's odd not being able to walk everywhere I need to go. If I hadn't lived somewhere else for a few years, I never would have thought about it that way. That sort of detail is probably too small to cram into most stories, but if it ever happens to be relevant, it's definitely an element of the setting to consider.
Setting matter more concerning what I am working on and usually its on a very personal level with the characters even if I am writing fantasy. I've actually been debating setting a few days ago concerning my current non-fantasy short-story/novella. Mostly because it is very confined since 75%, maybe a little less, of the story takes place in a restaurant. I don't touch on anything else where the character doesn't see or touch. Given it is a short story I don't think there is much room to go beyond that. I decided, which I don't know if it is wise, is to let the reader insert the general image of a city.
When I writing fantasy, I don't spend that much time out of story building the world. I don't think of fantasy writing as I am trying to tell a story about this world as I am telling a story about a character living in this world, and this is what happens to them. I don't plan my story and go off planning to create places my character isn't going to see or force them to go see them just because I thought it. I mean if my characters end up in a swamp with marshy mushroom people, its for a good reason. The plot demands they be placed in said swamp with marsh mushroom people.(Have yet to use marshy mushroom people) I mean my planning for fantasy stories goes like this. Basic character build, what I want the story to be about, detailed character guidelines, plot, conflicts, extra data such as setting, write.
Setting an entire story in a restaurant can be awfully limited, but there's still a lot you can do with that. In theatre, it's typical to have each scene set in a static space, but the treatment of the space always has some significance in the story, even beyond Chekov's gun. You can also imply a lot about the world the restaurant inhabits just through dialogue and behavior. I'd be curious to see how you handle that limitation.
I like your approach to world-building. Sometimes I feel like I put way less back-end planning into the world than other speculative writers. I mean, I've drawn out maps, had to develop timelines, and all that, but I'm always way more interested in the characters and telling their stories. You can discover a lot of things about a world just by writing it too. As long as the approach you use works, right?
I'm curious on how this novella project of mine is going to go. Working to show a few thing with the patrons might make my uncertain about how closed the the story feel go away. Been a bit since I had something take place in a contemporary world, longer in the fact nothing supernatural happens.
Whatever works to get results is what it really comes down to. To be honest I've never really understood the sit aside a lot of time to build a world outside the story method. I prefer discovery writing.
I consider this an excellent question! Setting is a key part of what sells me on a science fiction novel that I'm reading. Does the author surprise me with originality? Do they also make it cohesive; consistent? Do teh characters fit within it, as you asked? I haven't written anything terribly long for my work. My longest was "Dinosaur Plots", and it's the only time I wrote something long enough to need some detail on the setting. It challenged me because I needed readers to have an emotional reaction to the story, while also accepting that I had contradicted reality for story purposes. I tried to keep as close to reality as possible, but deciding when I should or should not bend it was tough! And creating the mood and atmosphere was a subtle business; it had to reflect my main character's emotional outlook without being too on-the-nose. I hope this thread carries on for a while, as I'm intrigued to see what the next posters have to add...
Thanks! And same for me. Part of what I love about speculative fiction is being able to go places with the setting you can't in realistic fiction; the setting pretty much determines everything. I ask myself the same questions, and internal consistency is important for me.
Mood and atmosphere can be very subtle and difficult to really bring out in a piece. I think I said in another reply that the tendency is to over-do the imagery and end up writing purple prose, when really carefully chosen details in the imagery and diction can have a greater impact on how that stuff works. Rereading Poe last year, I was actually struck by how succinct the imagery was, and he's pretty much the master of mood/atmosphere. But I think you can even look at a writer with a more minimal and modern style, like Hammett, and get a feeling for place. It's just more implicit.
And I'm interested in seeing what more folks have to add as well. I've already enjoyed the responses thus far.
Have you ever read the classic story The Moon Moth? The author really sells me by creating a unique, memorable society with logical rules that it never abandons -- yet finds a way to manipulate for plot purposes without us seeing the ending coming. In fact, the reference in one scene -- that if Earth wanted someone to wear a Sea-Dragon Conqueror mask, they should have sent a Sea-Dragon Conqueror man -- is a line that sustained me in my old job when a new manager started trying to bully me. He pushed me too far, and my "serial killer face", as my ex called it, came out. My expression goes stone cold and my eyes narrow, while my voice goes Hannibal Lecter smooth. He panicked and avoided me for years after that encounter! Mind, I didn't threaten him, not even subtly. But he wasn't a Sea-Dragon Conqueror, and pretended he was. I guess that's a mark of a great story: an environment or society that is so vividly constructed that it lingers in the mind for decades after we first read it.
And there are stories like The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe. It has a wonderful sense of atmosphere and grasp of what moves us, plus a vividly described home for the very young protagonist. I still remember that story all the time.
I've read only a little of Gene Wolfe, one of his short stories and a bit of The Book of the New Sun. I'm on the fence about continuing any further. Normally I love ornate prose, but there's something about his diction that makes reading very slow and offputting.
I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes, he can drive me nuts for the same reason. That makes it all the odder that I urge you so strongly to give the story a try. It's a bit of a departure from what you probably read already, and has a realism that blends strangely well with the surreal elements.
I don't tend to think much about the setting when I'm planning because it usually ends up forming itself as the story develops. I make maps and stuff always near the end of the planning stage, just because I always change it around so much I would need to keep redrawing the maps.
I think the setting affects the mood and atmosphere, but not entirely. I have two stories written in pretty similar settings, but with completely different moods and genres. It's also the characters and what happens, and I find it's the smaller things too. Like how they talk, the comments they make, their reactions to certain things, the personalities...
Actually, I think figuring it out as you go can be very interesting. That was more my approach with my SF initially, but as I've stuck around in this world, it's become a lot more detailed and clearer logistically.
Good point there as well. It is possible to convey a different atmosphere in the same setting just by virtue of the particular story you're trying to tell.
1. Do you think much about the setting when you write a story? If so, to what extent does it impact the story? If not, why not?
When I get stuck, a favorite technique of mine to break through writer's block is to draw the scene out. Somehow, looking at the picture helps stir my imagination. (There's my answer to #3) A small percentage of the drawings end up in my dA gallery, but I have dozens more. In some of the drawings, I go to great lengths to include tiny details, carefully thinking about every nuance in the landscape.
But in the actual prose, almost none of it is described. There's little imagery that exists for the sole purpose of painting the scene. I suppose that'd be my answer to number 2:
2. ... How does setting impact your characters or plot?
If I go to the trouble to describe the setting, it's typically because the characters react to it at some point, or it sets the mood. For example, in the story I'm working on right now, a significant part of the plot is the protagonist's slow descent into madness as he watches a storm roll in.
As a reader, I must have less than average patience for imagery. As a writer, I've done a complete turn-around from my high school self, that used to describe everything in detail. At some point I realized I shouldn't write what I don't like to read.
Your response brings up another interesting question for me, which is how much does the setting need to be described for it to have an impact on the story?
I'm not sure that detailing a setting necessarily requires detailed description of imagery. That is one way to convey setting, but setting could also be as simple as the character looking at the bar clock and seeing that it's already midnight.
Also, as a visual artist, I like your idea of drawing a place in order to visualize it better. Clever idea.
I think a lot about the setting, and of course it has a huge impact on the story. The setting sets the possibilities and limitations for the characters and their actions. A Medieval monk, Renaissance lady or future alien will face different conflicts (outer as well as inner) than a Facebook-area teenager. The consequences of failure and/or breaking rules are different. Hell, rules are different. What people believe is different. How people see themselves, each other and the world is different. My stories won't work in a different setting (maybe in a very similar setting), because setting, characters and plot lines are affecting each other.
I might exaggerate world-building a bit if that's possible. I work out much more background details than I need and/or will go into the story. Somehow I believe that it still will slip in. One or the other I might use to put another obstacle in my character's way ... more conflict.
Mood and atmosphere is something I will have to work on, because it means a lot to me. Besides characters I can relate to, the atmosphere is what drags me in.
Honestly, I don't know. I think I sometimes exaggerate it which makes a piece harder to read. It partly is about "key words", terms and metaphors. I try to use something the characters in the setting know, not what I know. I normally shy away from describing too many details, but when the setting is historical or historical fantasy (or science fiction), one or the other detail could add a lot to the atmosphere. Here comes one tricky part, because why describe something that is normal for the characters? The setting also affects my language style which is something I will have to be careful with.
I hear what you're saying. Sometimes when you're trying to enhance the atmosphere, it's very easy to fall into purple prose or pathetic fallacy. The idea of "key words" sounds sorta like using motifs?
Here comes one tricky part, because why describe something that is normal for the characters? This is a good question. It's easier, maybe if you adopt some omniscience in the narrative, but that doesn't work so much if you're trying to maintain a limited scope. The trouble with omniscience is it could lead you to insert lengthy infodumps, which are difficult to pull off. Personally, I prefer maintaining the scope to what the character I'm focusing on could know at the time and try to take a more immersive approach.
What I mean is ... specific terms typical for the setting. Of course you shouldn't exaggerate that and it should still be understandable for the reader. Just that, as an example, when it makes sense to mention it, you write "pantaloons" instead of "trousers" or "laser gun" instead of ...
I don't like ominiscience and try to avoid infodump. Just that sometimes a character doesn't notice something, because for him or her it is normal, while a reader might want to know more. You won't notice that your neighbor is wearing jeans and a t-shirt and that they are selling frozen pizza in the supermarket, because it's normal. You only would notice when something is odd. Like when you meet your neighbor in the supermarket and he or she is naked. Or when they suddenly sell cars instead of food. And now, a character in a fantasy, historical or science fiction setting ... what would be unusual for us is quite normal for them. I tend to *not* describe what the character doesn't notice. As a result, some of my notes read a bit odd.
OK, I get what you're saying. Yeah, details like terminology can carry a lot of information in terms of setting. That's kinda the direction that interests me w/this topic. People tend to link setting with imagery and description, but it can pervade so many other aspects of the story.
I'm fine with omniscience, but it can be tricky to pull off well. I think I understand what you're saying. The stuff that your characters take as a given and don't note as significant because they see it everyday, isn't from their perspective going to be focused on in loving detail with an explanation of its inner workings. It's kind like how we see cars, ride in them, drive them, and don't put much thought into how they work.
Imagery and description is a part of it, but there are so many other aspects. Language style. A space captain will have a different way of speaking than a medieval nobleman (of course, a major character's personality will affect their voice, too). This doesn't affect the narrator, of course, but even here... I find this tricky, because your story still should be readable. Then there are metaphors. It might be only me, but I try to use metaphors the characters in the setting would know of. (Here you must be careful to avoid clichés.) In my case it's some historical fantasy setting. So I read a lot of fantasy, historical novels and also century-old books to see the difference and to learn how the authors handle certain issues.
Like that, yes. Also depends on a character's personality/profession/education/gender/age/... and the situation where they look first and what they percieve.
I like how you use the setting to help guide your approach to the writing. Very interesting and probably aids the immersiveness.
I think about this stuff while writing sometimes too, but I do like a slight omniscience to sort of "pan out" from a scene and offer another perspective. You still have to be careful to use metaphors and other references that make sense in context.
I have a table of the chapters/main events in my story and I made a column to write down the settings of each one. It turned out that my characters spent WAY too much time talking in front of the kitchen sink. Bloody boring. So I decided to use more interesting settings.
Also, I like what you said about settings being specific. I've developed the settings a lot since I started. My story is about musicians, so they spend a lot of time in pubs and clubs, which could be very dull. It was, the places all seemed the same. So I went and made sure that the different places had a different atmosphere that worked with the plot. Like, how certain people seem 'at home' in certain environments or different places can seem hostile, make you feel on edge. I like it when places have character.
I have come to the conclusion that the story is sci fi, but I don't really build the world that deeply. It's a smaller scale story so I focus more on small environments, rather than the whole country/world.
I'm planning on writing a short story set in a real place, to see what it's like drawing from actual details.
Do you think that developing the setting more on a large scale could benefit the small scale in any way?
And I've done what you're talking about with some of my work many years ago. It can be interesting to draw from places you've actually been and for some writers I've talked to, easier than inventing your own.
Yeah to an extent, I reckon. It's only a very short book, so thinking about neighbouring countries and the political situation are pretty useless, but recently I've developed the main overall sort of music scene and climate of popular culture a bit more which does manifest in the small scale places and kind of gives it an overall vibe.
I've seen you mention this idea before in the forums, and I find it kind nifty. I'm always interested in imagining what art or music might look like in the future, but it's rarely dealt with in SF. I've dealt with it a bit in my work as well, and yes, you do need a grounding in the setting to make it feel more realistic.
"Sometimes people get so caught up in building this highly detailed world that they forget to relate it to the story." - just needed to repeat that.
1 - It doesn't matter that much to me. I'm kind of fucking nebulous about settings (working on it). I do tend to start with real cities, though, for ambience. 2 - See above: not much. If it's relevant and impacts the mood, it goes in. If not, I probably haven't thought about it. 3 - Depends on how familiar the characters're supposed to be with the setting. A person in a familiar setting will behave very differently from one in a whole new place, and that also drives the plot. ! - I think I covered those above. Poke me for more
Your answer bring up an interesting point for me, which is how explicit does the setting need to be for it to matter? And how conscious do the characters need to be of the setting for it to have an impact on them? What do you think?
I'm not sure about the 1st question, but with the 2nd question, I don't think the character needs to be aware of every detail for that setting to have impact on them. You're not always thinking about how you talk is reflective of the region you grew up in, are you? But it's always there when you talk, isn't it?
I think the author needs to know what it is, but in, say, flash fiction there's no reason why the setting should come up at all. Once you're trying to get a longer short story, novella, etc. you can't leave the reader with a mere skeleton of imagery to work off of.
I've deliberately avoided getting a Midwestern accent for the past decade (it slips out occasionally, argh), soooooo. Yeah. Depends on how aware you want the character to be?
I'm not sure what you're saying. That flash fiction generally doesn't incorporate setting as en element, or that references to the setting tend to be minimal or implied? I'm not that well read in the form, but the work I've read generally involves some kind of setting. It was just implied through specific details or treated very minimally. I wouldn't say you can't treat setting so minimally in a longer form, as I've read successful works that do, but I can agree that more time will be inevitably invested into building the setting in the work.
And you completely bypassed my question, dude. I'm suggesting that the character is not always aware of the impact of the setting, just as we aren't always conscious of the ways in which environment influences us.
That second thing, yes! I meant 'come up' in terms of what's on the paper. It may have a subtler overall presence.
It's just very hard for me to imagine how someone could be unaware of how their environment is influencing them (first-gen, woo?). Then again, I see a lot of Judeo-Christian bias in American society that isn't so much an attempt to press religion on people as it is a side effect of how stuff goes down here.
I think you're giving people too much credit. It's not that they're stupid, it's that we take a lot of things as a given and are as prone to conditioning as any other animal. Like, I'm not thinking that all this junk on my desk right now could not have possibly been on my desk 100 years ago, nor do I think about the apparatus that goes into its creation. I think, "oh, there are my scissors, that receipt from the drug store, etc."