Mistakes with Setting

Via The Passive Voice blog, from Writers Helping Writers, this post: Setting Description Mistakes that Weaken a Story

I would — and do, and have — argued that the most fundamental job of the novel opening is to establish the protagonist and place the protagonist in the world. In other words, the opening needs to focus on the protagonist and the setting before anything else. I’m therefore immediately on board with the basic idea of this post, although I notice — belatedly — that this post is not necessarily going to focus on the opening of a novel. Quite possibly the focus will be on problems with setting and worldbuilding that appear as the novel unfolds.

The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.

So, setting throughout. That’s fair. Not sure what’s meant by “characterize the story’s cast.” Perhaps that idea might be better expressed as: the reactions of the characters to the setting is never neutral; their reactions are part of characterization. That is, imagine a historical romance set in Big Sky country:

Does the protagonist perceive this setting as awe-inspiring? Bleak? Lonely? Frightening? Freeing? The protagonist’s backstory is going to influence their perceptions. Also, how about the other characters? These reactions aren’t relevant solely to immediate characterization; they can be part of important character arcs. Does one character express joy at the openness and freedom of this setting, thus influencing a more timid character to move toward a better sense of freedom herself?

Also, yes, tidbits of backstory can be worked into the description of the setting, and the setting does certainly evoke a mood, or ought to, and so on. So, this post is about mistakes. Let’s see what those might be:

1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing. By this, the article mainly means using too little description; leaving the setting flat; failing to give the reader enough of a picture of the setting so that the reader can’t feel drawn into the world.

2) Focusing On Only One Sense. That’s clear. People are so visually oriented that I’m sure it’s possible to forget to describe details that are perceived by other sensory modalities.

3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things. I see comments about this sometimes; that the author is lingering too much on unimportant details and the story bogs down. I’m not sure I can think of obvious examples off the top of my head.

I guess for me, more typically I fail to describe something that’s important a few paragraphs or pages later and therefore I have to go back and describe whatever that was. In Tarashana, for example, in that duel that occurs close to the end, various details of the sky and the physical setting are important and I very specifically went back to add enough details in the paragraphs that lead up to that duel so that those elements wouldn’t occur out of nothing.

4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters. Yes, this is a biggie. This post does a good job here:

Another [error] that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than shown through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude.

Right. That’s crucial, especially with a first-person or close third-person narrative. Though really, it’s important with every kind of narrative. Failing to tie the description to the character is going to give an overly intellectual feel to the narrative, pushing the reader away from an emotional connection with the protagonist or other viewpoint characters.

5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful. I don’t think that’s very likely to be a problem in SFF. Anybody writing fantasy or science fiction is going to be thinking a lot about setting as part of worldbuilding. I think that’s true for individual scenes as well as the broader setting.

One more comment:

I realized ages ago that when I read fantasy or SF, characterization is the element that matters most to me. But when I read mysteries or historicals, setting comes to the foreground and both characterization and setting matter most to me. nk this is because a more distant or unfamiliar setting makes the story seem more like fantasy to me, which I like. Regardless of the reason, I’m far, far more interested in mysteries with interesting or intriguing settings, and also vastly more drawn toward historicals with much more distant settings. Anything set in, oh, the Roaring Twenties, no matter how good the story may be, is not going to appeal to me as much as an equally good story set in, say, Classical Greece.

Okay! What is ONE novel with a setting that particularly appeals to you? Bonus if it’s something I haven’t read. Wait, let me correct that: Bonus if it’s a basically happy story that I haven’t read. I hardly know what to mention myself, since after all I comment about books I’ve read all the time and saying Oooh, The Hands of the Emperor! would be pretty repetitive, though the settings in that one are great. Let me think.

Oh, here we go, how about this one. I know I definitely haven’t mentioned it here for a long time, if ever:

Below the Root and And All Between by Zylpha Keatley Snyder. There’s a third book, also shown at the link, but I didn’t read it myself until much later because the library only had the first two. Perhaps for that reason, the first two stand out clearly in my memory, while I don’t recall the third well at all. Fortunately there’s a clear resolution at the end of the second book, so I wasn’t left hanging when I first read these stories.

Regardless, these books definitely offer a lovely setting, evoked here by the original cover:

I loved this setting so much! It’s right up there for Lovely Fantasy Worlds I Want To Visit. The stories are charming too. I mean, there are problems, but obviously these problems are overcome. I would say these probably count as happy stories, at least by the end.

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14 thoughts on “Mistakes with Setting”

  1. My library has (or at least I found) And All Between before Below the Root (and, like you, it was much later that I found Until the Celebration) and that was an…unusual…reading experience. I am now conscientious to the point of obsession about reading series in order.

    The setting of Hands of the Empire is lovely, but I actually like the setting of the Greenwing and Dart books even better – setting of almost-eighteenth-century-England (but not, with magic!) and characters who are almost-English (but not, with magic! and unbelievably WEIRD luck) play so nicely together.

    In Janet Kagen’s Mirible the setting, setup, and plot are absolutely inextricable from each other, and stuck with me enough to generate a decade long search for the book after I read – and then couldn’t find again – one of the short stories in it.

  2. Oh, I’m glad to say that I have a Greenwing and Dart book in my massive TBR pile.

    I enjoyed Mirabile very much. I liked her novel a lot too. Let me see. Oh, right, Hellspark. It’s an SF murder mystery. As a mystery, it’s not, well, very mysterious. As a novel, it’s excellent. The development of the AI character is especially great.

  3. Have you read Melissa McShane’s Tremontaine series? I love the settings of Tremontaine, Eskandia, Veribold, and the other places these books are set.

  4. I’ve got one of McShane’s on my TBR pile as well. I need to shuffle through the virtual pile and move some of these to my phone, where I’m more likely to look at them soon-ish.

  5. I also love Mirabile and Hellspark.

    A lot of the settings I think of have been mentioned here before: Bujold’s Five Gods and Sharing Knife series, Martha Wells’s Raksura books and The Wheel of the Infinite.

    Maybe The High House by James Stoddard. It’s so different from most things, and I still think of it sometimes if I’m walking through a long carpeted hall at a conference hotel.

    Or Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss.

  6. Hmm. I thought Tremontaine is by Ellen Kushner. (Theme: lust and swords, which is not to say it is bad.)
    I agree Hellspark is a fine novel.

  7. Oh I ADORED those Snyder books when I was a kid and remember them vividly as well. I also found them in the library. (Ailis, the library not always having all the books in a series gave me the opposite reaction, where I actually like the puzzle of reading a series out of order sometimes. I have to work harder to figure out what’s going on.) A book came out a few years ago that gave me the feeling the Snyder books were an influence but alas it had too much pain and tension in it for me to get through it. Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer for anyone with a higher tolerance. I’d love to know if it comes out ok!

    We haven’t talked about Martha Wells’ Raksura books in a while. The setting in those is definitely integral and tells us a lot about the different characters.

    How about Carol Berg’s Breath and Bone and Flesh and Spirit duology? If I remember right it was inspired by wondering what England would have been like after the Romans withdrew though it is by no means a one-to-one translation. The setting is not that unusual, it’s rather pastoral in some ways, with monasteries and such, but there are lots of worldbuilding details that are integral and beautiful. It’s not low tension or low angst, lots of betrayals personal and political, but it does come out all right in the end and it is one of my favorites.

    I love Hellspark and now I know you are all my kind of people FOR SURE because not that many readers have even heard of Janet Kagen. I love recommending her. Hellspark has been a favorite while living abroad. I wish I had a chamfer!

  8. I’ve just bought Mirabile, as it sounds exactly what I’m in the mood for right now!

    I’ve always been impressed with the Vorkosiverse setting: such different, entirely believable cultures to play with.

    And since you were mentioning the Inda series, Sherwood Smith’s Sartoria-Deles setting is also impressive, and integral to plot and character. And setting is so integral and so well-done in the Steerswoman series, too.

    If by “appealing” you mean “I’d like to visit,” then the Raksura world for sure. And Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings world. Also Muina (but not Tare) in the Touchstone world (and not just because of the super-hot psychic ninja warriors. They’re just a bonus!)

    Bonus for happy story with an appealing setting: have you read A Psalm for the Wild-Built? Just lovely. Becky Chambers has such an optimistic view of our potential future!

  9. I’ve been saving Hellspark for the proverbial rainy day, – I’m kind of surprised I didn’t pick it up at any point in the last two years, but I was also having a lot of trouble reading new books for a while. I may give it to myself as a reward this summer. I am also incredibly fond of her Star Trek book, Uhura’s Song.

  10. Thanks to everyone for suggestions, particularly suggestions I’ve never heard of, such as The High House. I’ll check those out.

    I tried To Be Taught, If Fortunate, and almost the first thing that happens is an enormous disaster, and I put the book down. Maybe I’d like Psalm better.

    Ailis, absolutely! That’s one of my favorite ST novels. Wonderful characterization.

  11. @Pete- yes, Kushner’s books are set in Tremontaine. McShane’s books are set in Tremontane. Weird how many books have similar names for places, right ?

  12. No enormous disasters in A Psalm for the Wild-Built. No disasters of any size. The world-changing past event wasn’t even a disaster. This setting would definitely count as a lovely place to visit and perhaps set up residence. (They have a lot of really nice-sounding tea.)

  13. Lots of books to check out, thank you!

    I love the desert setting of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, particularly the opening, when you think it’s going to be a Victorian-colonial-era fantasy, and then the gradual reveal that it isn’t … (and of course Corlath and Harry are lovely characters, and the ride across the desert is just so much fun.)

  14. Gill, I totally agree. I love that story. Robin McKinley is such a great writer; I just sink into that novel every time I re-read it. That is one I’d like to visit — and I think I might be able to ride well enough to stay on a Hill horse. A gentle one.

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