Sunday, April 25, 2010

Setting can be more than just your favorite coffee house

The Online Writing Workshop for SF & Fantasy taught me how to write better by reviewing other writing, and the basics of both writing and reviewing are outlined in the five categories identified by the Workshop:

1) professionalism of writing
2) setting
3) characterization
4) plot credibility
5) dialogue

I've seen lots of blog posts out there on items 1, 3,4, and 5, but very little on setting. Is setting important just for SF & Fantasy, where you have a lot of world-building? I think setting is important no matter the genre. And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that sets apart a good book from a really, really good book is the attention the author gives to setting. To have a good book you need strong characters, excellent dialogue, a great plot, and crisp writing. But just based on the books I've been reading lately, what stands out between a good book versus a best-seller kind of book is (well, there are several things) but one of them is really interesting and well-drawn settings.

For instance, you could write a scene between two characters in conflict at a restaurant or a coffee house. Familiar setting, but a little ho-hum. Or, you could write it in a cemetery, at a fresh graveside. Or, they're at a greyhound racetrack. Or, a hospital emergency room. Picking unusual places can add a whole new layer to a scene. You see unusual or flashy settings all the time in movies (at the moment for some reason I'm thinking of that 80's classic, When Harry Met Sally - anyone remember the scene at the Sharper Image store?) (okay, that setting might have been a promo, but it's still memorable). Author Don Miller wrote a great blog post pointing out that many of our special memories are associated with unusual or out-of-the-way places, and gives advice about things we can do to create more memorable "scenes" in our own lives.

What's your favorite unusual setting from a movie or a book?


  1. I think you're right. Setting can be overlooked! Emphasis is placed on characters. Without interesting characters, it hardly matters where they are...

    Yet, thinking about how I can't think of a favorite setting in a book OR movie proves that I may be overlooking a vital element. :D My latest ms is set in Belize, and that's been fun to write. I've never been there, though.
    thanks for stopping by my blog.

    I love your background. I'm playing with new looks. :P

  2. Liked your comments on writing settings.

    I get a fair amount of criticism that I spend too much time on settings/description, but I defend myself by saying you have to set the stage where the actors are acting.

    Maybe all the writing advice concentrates on the action

  3. Setting is incredibly important, and one of the hardest things to teach, as it really reflects your "voice." Hemingway, after all, would have rejected any advice to create long, lush descriptions.

  4. Bravo to setting. One of the most vivid settings is out of Brave New World - a society controlled from birth to grave by a media controlled dictatorship.

  5. Thanks for the comments. A setting in Belize is definitely going to catch attention and Brave New World is scary but great example, too. Cynthia - I'm so glad you pointed out that setting reflects your voice and Hemingway is a great example. I have been pursuing voice for years now without catching it; but you just gave me another clue in my search! Kay - it's true we have to somehow integrate our settings into the action of the story. Otherwise it can end up being infodump. Thanks again all!

  6. Setting is really important to set the tone for the novel, I think. My favourite setting? Hm... can't think of anything right now. I'll let you know!



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