Chapter 7, Part 2: Writing Setting

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* No Fiction Yesterday
* Chapter 7, Part 2: Writing Setting
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

No Fiction Yesterday

I didn’t write fiction yesterday. Too many other things going on. I hate when that happens.

Chapter 7, Part 2: Writing Setting

Notes on the Example

Notice that in the example I focused-down on a some details (specifity matters) so the reader could see or feel them clearly:

  • The stoop
  • The specific detals in the otherwise vague description of the character (age, hair, suit, satchel)
  • The temperature and air quality
  • Thin clouds
  • The clothesline poles
  • The sky
  • The road
  • The cornfield and the husks (I also invoked the sound of a harvester that isn’t there yet plus the dust that isn’t there yet)
  • The biplane (sight and sound)
  • The overgrown lawn
  • The path + mailbox
  • The Japanese maple tree (much better than “tree”)
  • The car + the scratch below the door handle

And finally the problem of the equation Character + Setting + Problem = Story Idea: He can’t move his left foot.

  • Then the untied shoelace,
  • the satchel again, (and why is it a satchel and not a briefcase?)
  • him kneeling.

Then problem number two: the explosion and the shattered doorframe and something hitting the back of his head and neck.

Why wasn’t I more specific about that?

Because he didn’t witness it. He heard it and felt the effects of it, but he can’t know specifically where the bullet hit or what slapped him from behind.

The reader should see (hear, taste, smell, etc.) what the POV character sees, hears, tastes, smells.

Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Disclaimers Regarding Points of View

1. In the upcoming section, I will not talk about the so-called points of view they teach in high schools and colleges: omniscient, limited omniscient, “deep POV” and all that.

I was an English major in college, so I know the terms inside out, upside down, and sideways. Those are terms applied after the fact by literary critics.

They do not apply to writing fiction. They apply (via critics) to written fiction. There is a difference.

2. Writing instructors who use those terms got them indirectly from critics through English teachers and others who do not actually write fiction.

Those usually are the same writing instructors who will say things like “I can’t explain [whatever craft concept] but I know it when I see it.”

No, they don’t. If they knew a concept instead of having only a passing and usually flawed notion of it, they would be able to explain it.

3. Fiction writers who fret over those terms got them from the same sources bad writing instructors got them.

More importantly, they are missing the point: Every word of the story must come through the POV character, filtered through his physical and emotional senses and accompanied by his opinions.

Point of View

As any POV character encounters a new setting—exactly like every person in “real” life—he will sense different aspects of that setting and get different sensory impressions of the parts of it he notices.

Also like every person in real life, the character’s impressions and opinions of the setting always depends on the character’s personality, which is not preplanned in a character sketch. It emerges as you write.

The character’s impressions and opinions also depend on his “baggage”—his experiences (good and bad), personal political and religious beliefs, sexual preference, biases or prejudices, and so on. As you probably know, the list is endless, and those things also are not preplanned. They also emerge as you write.

As you describe a scene through the physical senses of your POV character, his opinions of that setting will reveal a great deal about him. Things even you did not know. And they will reveal the character of the character.

Can You Switch the POV (So the POV Character)?

Yes. It’s best to do so on a chapter by chapter or section by section basis.

For a good example on how to do this, please see Appendix C.

The example in that appendix, an excerpt from one of my novels, also includes examples of time indicators. In the example, some chapters are titled with the POV character’s name. In other chapters, those that contain more than one POV character, the POV character is indicated immediately after a section break.

Some Ground(ing) Rules

To ground your readers in the setting, you have to describe it for them. To describe it, you simply write everything the POV character notices through his physical, mental, and emotional senses. So write everything he sees, smells, tastes, touches, or hears.

In addition, write everything he thinks (if anything) and feels emotionally (if anything) about the setting.

He will almost certainly have an opinion of the setting or of parts of it. Write that too.

For another brief example, say the POV character has just walked into a private library in an expensive home. He might smell residual pipe smoke. (The complete “library” setting example will appear in Chapter 7: Writing the Scene.)

If he does, he might frown or wave his hand in front of his face, and he might think or say aloud something about the “stench” of pipe smoke.

The frown, the waving hand, and the thought or comment are his opinions. For more on this, go back and re-read the example toward the beginning of this chapter.

Another character in the same setting might smile and say, “Hey, check out the sweet cherry scent (or aroma) of the guy’s pipe tobacco. Reminds me of my grandpa.”

The exuberance (“Hey”), the smile and the comment are also opinions.

In a good story, as in real life, characters (people) have opinions. Write them.

  • If the POV character notices something, put it on the page.
  • If he doesn’t notice it, don’t put it on the page.

To clarify, if the POV character doesn’t notice or comment on a particular sight, sound, smell, etc. but you, the writer “think” he should, don’t write it.

That is author intrusion. Never intrude on the story. The POV character is actually IN the setting and actually LIVING the scene and the story. You are not.

Notes on Too Much or Too Little

There are varied takes on how much description (or setting or narrative or dialogue) is “too much” or “too little.” Some people even try to slap a blanket over the topic with stupid statements like, “A story should be 50% (or 70% or 20%) dialogue and 50% (or 30% or 80%) narrative.”

Don’t believe any of that nonsense, even from so-called or would-be writing instructors. All of that is garbage.

If a writing instructor ever says something like that, demand your money back and leave. Spend it on something more worthwhile like drugs or whiskey or cigarettes. (I’m only joking. I do not advocate your use of any of those. Or anything else you don’t personally like.)

Less than knowledgeable writing instructors have said of my work that it contains “too much description.”

But my readers don’t even mention description. They simply say they felt as if they were “in” the setting with the character.

I’ll take that eight days a week.

As I said before and will probably say again, write what the character gives you.

  • The story is unfolding as you run through it with the characters. If you don’t add something the character gives you, chances are the character will insist you add it during a cycling session.
  • And if you add something that you, the writer, “thought” should be added, chances are you’ll bore the reader with—say it with me—Too Much Description. Any author intrusion is too much.

If you ground the reader as you run through the story with the characters—if you write the truth of what happens and write the truth of how the characters react and what happens as a result of that reaction—you cannot write a “bad” story.

Just remember, as your POV character moves from one setting to another, it’s your job as the writer to enable your readers to see, hear, smell, taste and feel what your POV character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling.

The Importance of Focusing Down

Again, the more specific and focused-down the description of the parts of the setting your POV character notices, more engaged your readers will be with the scene.

It’s perfectly all right to say of an office that there’s a bookshelf along one wall, a rubber tree in a planter in one corner, and a desk and chair along another wall. But if something happened in that office, focus down and describe that part of the office in greater detail.

Is there a body lying on the rug in front of the desk? What does the rug look like? Thick? Thin? Oriental? Commercial?

If there’s a wound, what is the pattern of the wound? A slit or slice? A hole? Stippling around it?

If there’s blood, what is the pattern of the blood? Is there a pool of blood? Is it also in the carpet? Is there a pattern of spatter?

If your character (detective, perpetrator, maid or butler with a secret) is going to sit down and go through the desk, again, focus down.

What items are on the desk, at least in the vicinity of the character’s hand? Blotter? Stapler? Phone? Miniature pool table?

Does the character open a drawer? Lap drawer or side drawer? Which side drawer? What’s the drawer pull look like? Run of the mill round or unique? If it’s unique, how is it unique? Does it look like tarnished brass leaves overlapping? Is it bronze? Wood?

Is the edge of the desk or the edge of a drawer chipped?

But what if the desk wasn’t broken into? Does a chip on the edge of the drawer still matter?

Yes. It focuses the reader down into the scene. It can also provide misdirection.

Next up, Chapter 7, Part 3. Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Fiction Branding… Part 1

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1660

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725
Day 3…… 3375 words. To date…… 10100
Day 4…… 3349 words. To date…… 13449
Day 5…… 4262 words. To date…… 17711
Day 6…… 3153 words. To date…… 20864
Day 1…… 3152 words. To date…… 24016

Fiction for February……………………. 27702
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 145306
Fiction since October 1……………… 448363
Nonfiction for February……………… 19850
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 51810
2024 consumable words…………… 197116

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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