Chapter 7, Part 3: Setting Matters

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* No Fiction Yesterday
* Chapter 7, Part 3: Setting Matters
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quote of the Day

“When an idea occurs, write the opening. Right Now. If it doesn’t work, throw it out. Then, if you still like the idea, write the opening again. Caution: Don’t rewrite, and don’t try to remember what you wrote before. All of that is conscious-mind stuff. It will derail the story.
• Write a new opening. Start fresh and just write whatever comes. Let the character lead you.
• Remember, the characters, not you, are living the story.
If the idea isn’t good—if it doesn’t hold your interest or it doesn’t run—come up with another character with another problem in another setting and write another opening. The more times you do this, the easier it becomes to turn an idea into a story.” A brief section I added to Chapter 4: Writing the Opening

Chapter 7, Part 3: Setting Matters

Setting should permeate the story.

  • Overall, maybe 20% or 30% of any story is composed of events, and those take place in a setting.
  • The other 70% or 80% consists of the characters’ reactions in dialogue and other actions to that event, and those also take place in a setting.
  • Nothing in real life—either events or character interaction—takes place in an empty space or against a sterile, blank background. There is always a background. That is the setting. Write it.

Characters Have Physical Attributes and They Wear Clothing

The reader should be able to see that clothing. Write it.

Well, unless the guy or gal who greets the POV character at the door is stark naked. In that case, write the POV character’s shock, surprise, disgust, or joy. Whatever. Write it.

A general description is always fine if you’re dealing with a secondary character or a gaggle of them (the guy wore jeans, a t-shirt, scuffed work boots and a ball cap). Write it.

Or the airport was filled to overflowing with men in suits and women in skirts and blouses or pantsuits. The whole place smelled of travel and pleather, and a boring automated announcement about unattended bags repeated every few minutes. Write it.

Or everyone at the worksite was dressed in dusty jeans, stained t-shirts, scuffed brown or black workboots and ball caps in varying colors. Or they all wore a blue ball cap with the sweat-stained Smith & Sons logo in white across the front. Write it.

Why? Because that’s all your POV character notices in passing as he’s focused on a particular goal. He wouldn’t notice specifically what they’re wearing, but he would at least notice that they weren’t naked. Write it.

For more prominent characters or for secondary characters who figure prominently in the story, a more detailed description might be necessary. So write it.

To be on the safe side, in every case describe whatever your POV character notices. This is not difficult once you learn to trust your character and to filter everything through his or her physical and emotional senses. And remember to include his opinions if he has any.

In the mini-scene at the airport above, he might mutter, “Bunch’a sheep.” That’s an opinion. Write it.

Places Wear Clothing Too

A house or other building has a façade with particular attributes.

If your character is going to walk into that building, the reader should be able to see the door and any windows, feel the doorknob or pushbar in his hand, smell the scent or aroma or stench that greets the character when he opens the door, and hear the sounds, if any, that wash out over him. Write it.

Obviously, if the character approaches the building from a block away, the description will be a bit more distant at first and become more focused as the character nears the entrance. Write it.

If he leaps from a car and crashes through the door, the description will be much shorter. But what he does notice will be more vibrant. Write it.

Likewise a room has a particular look and smell and temperature and sound (even if the “sound” is an eerie silence) and feel. Let your readers experience it right along with your POV character. Write it.

All of that is setting. Again, nothing—no event, no conversation, no character wondering internally what’s going on—takes place in an empty space or against a sterile background.

Why I No Longer Offer Critiques: A Cautionary Tale

Writing all of this reminded me again of a writer who emailed me awhile back and asked me to critique a short story for her. After some back and forth (I generally don’t offer critiques), I gave in and read her story. It was only six pages.

I invested some time (free) and offered a constructive critique in the form of a series of short questions in imbedded comments scattered over the first couple of pages of her manuscript. I didn’t embed notes after that because they would have been repeats.

In the opening of any story (scene, etc.) you must hook the readers and take them to depth. That means within the first 200 – 500 words, the reader should be firmly grounded in the setting AND connect with the POV character in some way.

This story opened with a husband on an exercise bike in the living room of their home. His wife came in and they started talking. The conversation went on for three pages. Which is fine.

But at no time did I learn what the husband or wife looked like or what they were wearing. I have no idea whether they were young or older, trim or heavy, wet or dry, naked or clothed.

I didn’t know anything about the setting except that there was an exercise bike of some sort in the living room and the guy was sitting on it as they talked.

I have no idea what furniture, if any, was in the living room, whether there were any windows or doors or a fireplace, or whether there was anything on the walls.

No, wait. As the story opened, the wife DID “walk into” the living room and saw her husband on the exercise bike, so there must have been at least one door. But I don’t know whether she came in from outside or from the kitchen. If there was a kitchen.

I don’t know whether the floor covering was carpet, hardwood or tinfoil. Or even whether there was a floor. I have no idea whether it was day or night. There were no clues.

I have no idea why the exercise bike was in the living room, though I kind of assumed he was watching TV as he pedaled. But I have no idea whether there was a TV in the room either. Or a potted plant. Or whether he pedaled, for that matter. There was no movement.

I have no idea whether the temperature in the house was warm or cool. I didn’t hear an air conditioner or fan running. Or the exercise bike, for that matter.

The only sounds were the disembodied voices of the characters. There was no sense of setting and no sensation of movement, even on the exercise bike.

I those few imbedded comments, I posed some brief questions: “What’s he look like? What’s she wearing? Can you describe the room?” etc.

In her quick reply, the author wrote only, “I’ll take this under advisement.”

Ah. So straight to the trash can. Okay. Well, good for you.

She also wrote, “Usually critiquers make a point of finding something good to say.”

Um, I’m pretty sure she had me confused with her mom. Or maybe with a mutual-admiration society critique group.

Notice I didn’t critique the actual content. Only aspects of craft. And even that much I did through a series of questions.

But it was a complete waste of the few hours I took to read her story and offer a non-intrusive critique.

And that is why I no longer offer critiques.

Next up, Chapter 7, Part 4. Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

How to write the perfect plot twist: Anthony Horowitz’s 5 top tips For those of you who are steeped in the myths or even prefer them, here you go. I could only laugh at the sheer audacity and irony of the first and fifth point, shaking my head the whole time. Ready?

1. Don’t underestimate the planning.

5. The only rule is originality.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1400

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 7…… 3152 words. To date…… 24016
Day 8…… 2192 words. To date…… 26208

Fiction for February……………………. 29894
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 147498
Fiction since October 1……………… 450555
Nonfiction for February……………… 21250
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 53210
2024 consumable words…………… 200708

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.

If you find this Journal of value and want to make a one time or recurring donation, please Donate Here. If you can’t donate monetarily or don’t want to, that’s fine, but please consider donating by sharing this post with friends.