blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How important is setting in fiction?

does the sofa colour matter?

bedrck via pixabay

Every story needs a setting — but how much?

One of the first things we need to know on starting a story is its setting. As well as establishing protagonist and stakes, the place where events happen must be known. A story without a clear setting floats around and is difficult to enter fully. If your reader scratches her head and asks herself “where are they again?” she steps outside the fictive dream. You’ve lost her.

The main elements of setting

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Mood/atmosphere
  4. Climate and geography
  5. Politics/culture
  6. History

The amount of detail needed varies. A contemporary short story may establish setting with a few words, especially if it is familiar to the reader. A novel needs more, particularly for historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The reader needs more depth to ground themselves in a world distanced by time or imagination.

Setting can be a character in itself. Consider the bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Aliette de Bodard’s ancient, sinister Paris devastated by magic wars in The House of Shattered Wings; or the drowned Southern States of Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. In all these books place is not only evoked, it acts on the characters and forces them to make choices.

How much is too much?

SFF is my favourite genre to read and write. No doubt I will be accused of poor worldbuilding, but I fall into the camp of less is more. (Maybe it’s my poet’s ear, seeking economy of expression and spaces for interpretation.)

Talking to another writer recently, I was vocal in my dislike of huge prologues, maps on both endpapers, long lists of characters and noble houses and relationships…yawn. Just give me the story already.

She, however, loves all the details. And so do many other readers. They enjoy minute descriptions of magic systems, exactly imagined terrain, and a catalogue of interior furnishings.

Historical fiction relies on accurately depicting a lost time. Research is essential but on the page, in a long description of how a nineteenth century cotton mill works, it screams info dump.

Unless it’s relevant to the moment, leave it in backstory. Just as we don’t need to flesh out soldier number 6 who doesn’t speak, we don’t need to describe goblets and gizmos in detail. If setting is in the background, let’s leave it there. We can fill in using imagination, if we want.

Setting is important 

but in the end only two things matter:
what the characters are doing
and
what happened next.

Minimalist or maximalist; which camp do you fall in?

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