You're reading through the first draft of your story. You have an
interesting protagonist, an engaging plot, and a terrific opening
to hook your readers. You turn to page two, and it hits you: your
scene takes place in "a room with white walls," or "a grassy
field," or another of the cookie-cutter settings that can make an
editor toss the story into the rejection pile.
Setting is one of the trickier elements of fiction. How much time
should you spend describing the crenellations and gargoyles atop
the castle wall, or the old-oil smell of the neighbor's garage?
Too much description and the reader could lose track of the plot
line. Too little, and your story takes place in a vacuum.
Readers are unlikely to buy into a story if they don't believe in
the world where it takes place. It's not always easy to describe
unique, engaging settings, especially in a first draft. What
follows are some tips to help you in the process.
In college, my greatest fear was that I might disappear in the
bowels of the university library like many a freshman before me.
The library was a labyrinth with confusing colored tape trails on
the floor. The wise freshman brought a three-day supply of food
in case he got lost, as well as breadcrumbs with which to leave a
Others, like myself, simply avoided the library. Instead, I wrote
about settings I knew and invented details for the ones I didn't.
After a few dozen rejections, I wound up in the hospital with
diabetes. I stayed there for three days, and when I got out, I
returned to my computer to work on a story I had started a few
months before -- a story which happened to be set in a hospital.
This story had earned a number of rejections, and as I reread, I
began to understand why. My made-up hospital was simply wrong.
Beds and curtains and bustling nurses do not a hospital make. I
added details that had stood out when I was a patient and used
them to spice up the story. I talked about the over-moist
pineapple cake I got at dinner and the cramped space around my
bed where visitors barely had room to sit down. I described the
IV tube that snaked around the rails of the bed and the smell of
urine that wafted through the room every time my cathetered
roommate opened the bathroom door. By the time I finished, that
hospital was real. I printed it out, mailed it off, and voila --
it was rejected by an editor who didn't like vampire stories.
It did sell to the next editor, however, becoming my second
professional sale. Of course, life isn't always cooperative
enough to provide real-world research for every story. Sure, I
got lucky this time (if you could call it luck), but what about
the next story?
For real-world settings, the Internet is one of the easiest
places to do a bit of quick and dirty research. A search for
"Paris, France," for example, summons up a number of more-or-less
official sites that provide tourist information, maps, and
history, all of which can add depth to your story. Not only that,
but a search for the words "Paris trip" and "journal" calls up a
number of personal journals describing school-sponsored trips and
vacations. Between these two, you can find a good balance of
information. Online journals are unreliable as a source of
objective information, but they can add flavor.
Another option is to contact people directly. Most states,
countries, and regions are happy to send travel and recreation
information to potential tourists, often at no charge. If you
know a person who has been to the location in question, so much
the better! Many people are more than willing to talk you through
their photo album if you identify yourself as a writer.
For more exotic settings, the library is a good place to start.
Try to find a university library, if possible. Once there,
immediately find a university librarian to help you find what you
need. Librarians, as I eventually learned, are far more helpful
Remember, you're not required to become the absolute authority.
We're writing stories, not doctorate-level dissertations. In most
cases, we don't want to spend too much time on the setting, since
this can eventually distract a reader from the story. I've found
it helpful to focus on two things: details and differences.
One approach to setting would be to describe everything from the
color of the ceiling tiles in the restaurant to the clothes on
the customers to every item on the menu behind the counter. Go on
long enough, and any reader will know everything about the
restaurant, including the exact color of the kitchen sink.
Unfortunately, the average reader will have thrown the book
across the room after page three and moved on to the latest
Stephen King bestseller.
There's no room to talk about everything, especially if you're
writing a short story. Instead, take a few moments and make a
mental list of details about the last bar you visited. Think of
the smells, the sounds, the decorations, the customers.
Rather than following the "kitchen sink" approach, pick out a
few details that exemplify the setting.
There's a local bar where one spot of carpet is a brighter green
than the rest, marking the spot where the manager used spray
paint to hide a vomit stain. That one detail not only captures
the atmosphere of the place, it also gives us a bit of insight
into the manager.
One famous and oft-quoted example is Robert Heinlein's line, "The
door irised open." Heinlein found a single detail that
established the entire feel of his futuristic environment.
Usually, it takes more than one detail. Try to seek out details
that engage at least two or three of the reader's senses. Visual
details alone are less engaging than details that describe sight,
texture, and sound.
In general, readers do about ninety-five percent of the work when
it comes to description. If you provide those key details, the
reader will do the rest.
Think of your local post office. What three details truly capture
the feel of the place? That can be a bit tricky, since so many
post offices tend to share a lot of the same details. A wall of
PO boxes establishes the scene, but we could be in any one of a
thousand post offices.
What makes your setting different? What detail makes this
particular post office distinct from every other post office in
I'm sitting in my cubicle at work as I work on this article. I
don't need to describe everything to establish a sense of
setting. It would be a waste of time for me to talk about the
gray partitions or the oversized appointment calendar on the
wall. Almost every cubicle in America shares similar features.
I need to find a way to make this place interesting. How does my
cubicle stand out from the rest? Maybe it's the Mexican radio
station playing on my supervisor's computer in the next cubicle.
The array of Lego Star Wars models scattered around my work
station is another possibility, one that gives a bit of insight
into me as well. Or it could be the tiny black gnats who
colonized the plants by the fax machine and like to crawl across
the computer screens, looking like rogue pixels.
Think about difference in terms of your story. What makes your
spaceship/castle/dark alley/bookstore/portable bathroom
different? Choose the details that carry the most punch, the ones
that make your setting stand out. Irising doors do establish
setting, but these days, it's not enough. Lots of spaceships have
irising doors. Instead, describe the fact that your space
explorers are constantly tripping over rabbits scurrying through
the halls of the ship, a result of defective DNA freezers back
when it used to be a colony ship.
Be creative, but be careful as well. Make your details too unique
or silly, and you've made an implicit promise to the reader that
these details will be a relevant piece of the story. If you go
with the space rabbits, your readers may legitimately expect the
rabbits to come up later in the story. The details need to match
the kind of story you write.
Esther Friesner wrote a series of comic fantasy novels in which
she mentions various hamster-related beasts. The reader never
encounters the evil super-hamsters, but because the books are comedies, and because these details aren't overused, they work to
establish a world gone silly. Mention a rifle hanging on the wall
while writing a murder mystery, on the other hand, and you had
better make sure somebody gets shot.
Putting it All Together
What happens when setting gets glossed over in the writing
process? If a writer isn't aware of setting, if we aren't
consciously looking for details to help the reader know this
place, we fall back on stereotypes and clichés. This is both
forgivable and normal, right up to the point where we submit the
story. After all, we're trying to keep track of characters and
plot and voice and the rest of it; setting can easily slip
through the cracks.
Discovering the setting can be one of the joys of revision. It's
a way to add depth and creativity to a story. In other cases,
when setting is more central to the plot, world-building might be
the first step in the writing process. Like most other aspects of
writing, there is no one right way to create setting.
When we skimp on setting, we tend to fall back on things we've
read before. One of my first science fiction stories took place
on a ship which, upon looking back, seems remarkably familiar. I
can almost hear the characters proclaiming their need to "seek
out new life and new civilizations."
Read through your story and ask, "Have I ever read a story that
takes place in this setting, or is this world truly unique?"
If it's the former, it's probably time to do a bit of research.
It's not that hard, and you almost never have to check in to the
Jim C. Hines has been writing for ten years, appearing in such
markets as Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, Sword &
Sorceress, and many more. He currently lives in Holt, Michigan,
with his wife and daughter, both of whom have been amazingly
patient with his writing-related neuroses. And by the time this
article is published, there may be a new member of the Hines
clan. For more info, excerpts from Jim's writing, and soon, tons
of baby pictures, visit his web site:
Copyright (c) 2005 by Jim C. Hines