Where am I? What time is it? What year is it?
Knowing where and when you are is one of those fundamental issues that all readers want to know. This means that as long as the POV characters knows his or her approximate location in place and time, the reader needs to have a similar clue about those details too.
(Obviously, if you’re writing an amnesia story, the reader will be discovering place and time as the POV character does!)
Despite the occasional amnesiac exception, and ignoring some other literary fiction exceptions,* keeping the reader oriented in time and space is crucial to avoid one of the greatest cardinal sins of popular fiction:
Never confuse the reader.
Confusing the reader is one of the worst sins for anyone aspiring to popular fiction careers. And one way it’s easy to confuse the reader is by not giving the reader a clue about where and when the story takes place.
How to Set the Stage
Setting the stage is thus a crucial piece to building a salable novel. But it is a lot more than simply describing the decor of a living room or the landscaping of a yard. Setting can establish character, set emotional tone, provide opportunities to increase tension, and even allow you to sneak in a sentence or two of back story.
It’s tricky to figure out setting. Say too much and you get that dreaded “data dump” onto the reader. Say too little and you bore the reader. Get it just right, however, and the story gets strengthened, your characters revealed in greater depth, and the emotional content of the story increases exponentially.
What? Emotion in setting? You betcha.
Emotional Depth Is Vital
The trick with setting is to make sure you present it from the perspective of the POV character’s emotional response to the setting. That not only provides insight into the character, but also sets the emotional tone, and offers lots of meat for the reader to chew on.
Beginning writers–especially those who aspire to Hemingway-like terseness–are often told to cut out all adjectives and adverbs as if they were the dirty-little-secret of writers. But that’s the wrong advice. The proper choice of specific, appropriate adjectives and the use of powerful verbs can enhance and build the emotional content of the description.
The other thing that beginning writers are often told is to cut out all description because it may stop the story in its tracks. Also not true.
The critical key is to describe only those specific elements that the POV character emotionally responds to, or that are critical to the story development.
Yes, there’s that word again. Emotion.
Emotion is what storytelling is all about, no matter what kind of story you’re writing. I don’t care if you’re writing an action-adventure or the most lavish romance, the darkest thriller or the lightest comedy. Whatever you’re writing remember that what the reader wants to experience is the emotional impact of the events of the story. This is the reason behind “deep POV” and it’s the reason careful use of setting is vital.
There is so much more to understand about setting. The best books I’ve seen on the subject are two e-books from Mary Buckham: Writing Active Setting, Book 1–Characterization and Sensory Detail, and Writing Active Setting, Book 2–Emotion, Conflict, and Back Story. Each one is only $2.99 for the Kindle. So, for less than six bucks, you can get a really great explanation for why setting is important and how to improve your use of it in your own story. There are even a few exercises in how to apply the ideas in your own story.
I believe Buckham is planning a third book in this series on Writing Active Setting, but it’s not yet released. Given how terrific these two brief gems are, I’ll be standing in line to get Book 3 once it’s released.
Meanwhile, I’m going back to scrutinize my current W-I-P (that’s “work in progress”) to make sure I’m using setting to its fullest impact. Brilliant.
* Even literary fiction generally tries to keep the reader properly oriented. Take a look at one of my personal favorites, CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell. It was made into an astonishingly good movie released in November 2012. Sinfully, the film version was completely ignored by the Oscars in spite of its phenomenal acting, directing, cinematography, and screen adaptation. This is a book (and movie) that takes setting of time and place very seriously–and it beautifully uses it for mood and emotional content as it swings back and forth among six different story lines in six different eras from the 1800s to the far future. My point here is that even literary fiction needs to pay attention to setting and use it to its best advantage. If you’re interested in either the book or the movie, here are links for the movie (on the left) and the book (movie tie-in version on the right):