I like my story with a lot of layers. In most of the creative writing classes I’ve taken, the how-to books I’ve read, and even in online chatrooms and face-to-face discussions with other writers, the issue of setting always comes up at some point in the conversation. Where is the story taking place? What time period? What’s the flavor of the story like?
While knowing what century your medieval castle is based off of is great, there is more to setting than the physical and geographical parts of it. Setting also has to do with backstory. Movies are especially good at this because the opening scenes in general give us a chance to interpret a number of things before any action takes place. You get a sweeping view of the landscape, maybe a few scattered conversations, some shots of the main character (so you know who to pay attention to) and some nice foreshadowing for later. In writing, you don’t necessarily get that time to ease the reader in before the action starts, but the concept is the same. Your main character has a history you will never see and a future you can only speculate about.
Once you accept this – that you will never be able to impart absolutely everything there is to know about your main character, then the real work starts. Even if you know everything there is to know about your character, that doesn’t mean the reader is going to get a chance to know it all. What parts are really important for them to know about? What is it about the world of the story that the reader needs to know? When do they need to know it?
One of the big problems I’ve seen in first chapters is the info-dump mentality. You get so worried that no one will know what’s happening, you overload all your backstory into the beginning. You essentially make the story top-heavy so that it sinks before it ever really starts. This also has to do with that whole “show don’t tell” blurb a lot of writers spit at you. Not saying it isn’t true that you should focus more on action than interpretation, but I do get a little sick of the way people tend to say that phrase. A little bit arrogant, a lot annoyed – how could you TELL your reader all of that when you could have just shown them? I don’t think it’s that easy – obviously it isn’t, or less people would do it – but I digress.
Here are the three things I always look for when I’m thinking about the initial setting for a story:
It’s really awesome that your main character’s best friend’s family comes from a long line of traders. It’s even cool that you go into a little detail about it since it adds color to your scenes. But if your main character is never going to see his or her best friend again for the duration of the story and the best friend’s family never figures into the story in any way, it is something worth cutting from a manuscript. A sense of interconnected events offers stability to a story. It’s fine if you want to go on little tangents on occasion, but do so consciously and with a desired outcome in mind. You want to talk about the history of the forest? Knock yourself out – but make sure it sets some kind of mood or figures into the story in some way, even if all it does is freak out the main character and make them react a certain way later in the story. On this same note, look at the timing of your information-drops (because there will invariably be info-drops of some kind – otherwise your reader will become completely lost). Sometimes, the key to suspense in a story is all about WHEN you reveal certain information. See if you can use the setting and the timing to create mood.
Have a fairly clear idea what kind of government your story is going to have. Even if you’re writing modern day realistic fiction, know who is in charge of your story’s little world and who owes whom what. Kingdoms can be vast or small, but there is always someone in charge. And that someone in charge is always important in some way to the story and the setting: know the dynamics between your characters, especially where the power is.
It may sound really weird, but I consider character backstory to be part of the initial setting. A character’s tone and their experiences always color their reactions. Because everything is ultimately connected – the politics, the characters, the landscape, the emotional temperature – a character’s background can be just as telling as the weather. The way that people react to their surroundings is the whole reason that so much attention is focused on setting.
I’ll be doing a blog later on about showing vs. telling – that infinite loop that you always hear writers and editors talk about. Now, I’ve got my own thoughts on the subject that may not mesh well with others but I’ve found that everyone has a different opinion, even people who have been in the industry for a while. But until then, here’s an awesome blog for you about it.