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December 13, 2012
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Dec 13, 2012  Professional General Artist
Last night, I took part in *raspil's brainstorming workshop in #crliterature. For those unaware what that was about, go here: [link] . Part of the workshop involved brainstorming settings. The only stipulation that they had to avoid cliches like school and office and be specific enough to use as a good starting point for a story. Other than that, there was no right or wrong idea, everything was fair game. Some people were scared of throwing their ideas out there at first, but once the ball got rolling it turned out to be a lot of fun. No surprise, brainstorming is usually fun.

Anyway, the workshop got me thinking. A lot of topics get raised on this forum, some repeatedly (much to my chagrin), but setting seems to come up the least. Kinda odd, considering that it's one of the major elements in every story and plays a role in poetry as well. So I started to wonder why that is and then decided that a thread focusing on setting specifically might get some interesting/fun discussion going.

Now, bear with me here, I've got a couple more points/theories to pontificate upon before asking some specific questions:

1) The one exception I see to the general lack of discussion on setting is world-building. This makes a lot of sense, as fantasy and science fiction are genres defined mostly by setting. A writer is creating a secondary world or a world existing within/parallel to this one, or they're imagining this world 25, 100, 500 years into the future, maybe in outer spec, on another planet whatever. How can setting not matter?

However, I notice a failing in the way speculative writers sometimes approach setting. Sometimes people get so caught up in building this highly detailed world that they forget to relate it to the story. There's often an urge to show the work, which can be impressive, but to what end? World-building is all about big picture thinking. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. A lot of amateur fiction would actually benefit from more big picture thinking. But the bulk of what takes places in any short story or novel happens on a small, more personal scale.

2) When people bring up issues with plotting or characterization, I often think the issue raised could possibly be sorted our by relating those elements to the setting.

Let's say that you have no idea what's going to happen to Joe in-betweens point A and B. One way to determine that might be to ask questions like "What does Joe do on Friday nights?" OK, he likes to go to this bar here. Maybe he meets his best friend Lou there and they talk about his breakup with Cindy. Or what if he decides to go to a different bar in a seedy part of town and ends up getting knifed? Just thinking about the setting, where and when stuff is going on, I've come up with a couple of interesting scene ideas that could impact the plot. I've also learned some things about Joe as a character, like what he does in his free time, who he trusts, etc.

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SO...a few questions about setting:

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?

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?

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?

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?

If you like, feel free to answer only the particular questions that interest you. If you have a lot to say about one in particular, go for it. Or answer them all in excruciating detail. I'm leaving this discussion as broad as possible.
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:iconlupina24:
Lupina24 Dec 21, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
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.
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Dec 27, 2012  Professional General Artist
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.
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:iconlupina24:
Lupina24 Dec 29, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
'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.
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:icondamonwakes:
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. :p 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.
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Dec 15, 2012  Professional General Artist
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.
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:icondamonwakes:
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. :shrug: 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.
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Dec 15, 2012  Professional General Artist
Yeah, I know it's a lot to cram into a story, but I do think those little details can possibly have more impact than people think. Just something to consider. :shrug:
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:iconladyander:
LadyAnder Dec 13, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
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.
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:iconsaintartaud:
saintartaud Dec 15, 2012  Professional General Artist
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?
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:iconladyander:
LadyAnder Dec 15, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
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.
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