Friday, September 7, 2012

The Quest for Story: #6 -- A Time and a Place

(Photo by Chris J. Fries -- 2012: Reflections)
(This is post #6 in a quest to define what creates "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

In the first half of this series, we defined the three key elements that I believe must be present to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice.  Then we added in a few more details which elevates a story -- an effective beginning and emotionally compelling conflict.

For the second half of our quest, we will  continue fleshing out the elements of character, plot, and voice.  Today we cover an element that can have either a huge impact or virtually none, depending on the story.  The key is to know how much a given story needs.

Try to imagine Frank Herbert's Dune set anywhere else than on the desert planet Arrakis.  Or Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath taking place at some time other than the Great Depression. Think Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep would work as well if Phillip Marlow was a private investigator anywhere other than Los Angeles in the 1930's?  How important are the creatures and landmarks of Middle-Earth to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?

All these novels succeed in part because of another important element of a good story:


Setting is the "when" and "where" of a story.  For some stories, setting is almost insignificant. Just enough information is needed to ground the plot.  For others, it is a vital element, so much so that the setting 'becomes a character in itself', to use the old adage.  At this level, the setting affects the plot and the other characters, and the plot leads to change and consequences for the setting.

Some of the need for setting is driven by genre -- science fiction and fantasy typically requires more time establishing the setting.  The more alien the universe, the more groundwork a writer has to do to get the reader to understand that world.  But even within those genres, some stories will still really only need the level of  "modern day in a big city somewhere" setting to be entirely effective.

I think the secret is to know what's right for a given story, and for me that's driven by two things:  I want to describe the parts of the setting that are critical for the plot, and the elements that a character's POV would see, when they impact that character.  And the level of impact helps guide how much effort to put into it. 

World-building can be fun, but I think many writers can overdo it.  Perhaps they're familiar with that 'setting as character' line (and hasn't every high school English teacher rolled it out?), and so that's what they aspire to.  In every story, regardless of how important the setting really is, they'll have sweeping depictions of the landscape and the weather; rigorous establishment of historic timelines; and detailed descriptions of every item of flora and fauna.

Personally, I think setting is important (or I wouldn't be making this post), but I also tend to lean towards the 'less is more' school of thought when it comes to description and setting.  I'd just rather not risk having my readers bogged down in extraneous detail.  I also don't want them gawking at the scenery when I'm trying to get them attached to my characters or working to advance the plot.

I think setting is like Thanksgiving turkey -- just the right amount really adds to the holiday, and in the hands of a skillful cook (like my lovely wife), it can be a mouth-watering treat that I can look forward to all year.  But left to a shakier chef it can come out dry and bland, and too much of it always leaves me snoozing on the couch in a tryptophan-induced coma.

So how important is setting to you?  Is it a vital element of your own Good Story Quest?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Setting is important in speculative fiction, but as you say, it can be overdone. I need just enough to get a sense of place and then my imagination can take over from that point.
I had to work more on setting for my second book, but since mine are character-driven stories, it doesn't become a character. (And I definitely didn't go overboard!)

Gina said...

Setting is very important, to give just what is needed or to turn it into a character you need skill not only to write it in an interesting form, but to instinctually know what will work better for your story.

In my case, I like it when a setting comes alive and reflects into the characters, in their state of mind, or in the general feeling a story leaves within the author. In that sense my style is very much gothic (remember Poe's Fall of the House of Usher?). However, like I said, it is very difficult to bring to live a house or a patch of woods without becoming over descriptive or slowing the pace of the story. I'm still learning how to do it myself, but I hope the aches and pains will pay off with such an unsettling general ambience that'll make my stories hard to forget. Cross your fingers!!

Great series, Chris. Can't wait to read more. =)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I have discovered that, for me, setting develops best in the second draft. When I try to focus on it too much in the first draft, it bogs down the plot.

Only after I've hacked out the story arc does the setting reveal itself to me. It's like ... ah, so THIS is where it all took place!

Tonja said...

I am a literature nerd and really like it when the setting serves as a metaphor for something else going on in the story or contributes to the theme.

Milo James Fowler said...

There's a fine line between overdoing a setting (which is obvious) and underdoing it (equally as obvious). When there's too much description, I'm tempted to skip through it until I get to the "good parts"; when there isn't enough, I'm lost and have difficulty "making the movie in my mind" while I'm reading along. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: great series, Chris!

Nicole said...

Great post! I love worldbuilding. I think some writers overdo it because they put everything on the page. You can do some awesome worldbuilding to frame it all out...but only a small percentage needs to make into the final book.

Simon Kewin said...

Yep, I think you're right. I love world-building and imagining, but just dumping all the info on a reader can make for a dull read, as you say. I think you need to have the world there in your head and then sneak in details as and when it helps the plot or advances a character.

Chris Fries said...

@Alex: I absolutely agree -- "just enough to get a sense of the place and then my imagination can take over." Great way to put it!

@Gina: Thanks, Gina. :^) And I hope all your pains pay off, too -- My fingers (and toes!) are crossed!

@Dianne: Great comment! I think that's really interesting, and it shows it working out in the right direction -- the plot should drive the setting, not the other way around.

@Tonja: I agree that it can be beautiful when it works out, but it's very hard to do well.

@Milo: Thanks! And excellent job describing what happens outside the 'sweet spot' in either direction, Milo. I completely agree!

@Nicole: Thank you! And I whole-heartedly agree. ;^)

@Simon: Perfectly said, Sir! "..sneak in details as and when it helps the plot or advances a character." Here, here!

Mina Lobo said...

I enjoy and agree with the Thanksgiving turkey analogy - good one! :-)
Some Dark Romantic