A friend of mine had a small role as a middle-aged Jewish woman in the first season of a popular TV series, and was asked back for a second season. When she discovered that a scene written for her in the next season was almost an exact replica of one of the scenes she did in the first, she rang me to ask for ideas about how to make the new scene different. I suggested they show her baking challah – to which she replied, “But there’s no kitchen on the set.”
Fortunately, as novelists we have no such constraints, and can set our scenes wherever we like to add variety and richness to our story.
Setting refers to time and place, and is essential for conveying the world of the story. Most writers understand that a story set in eighteenth century France will have a different feel from one set in ancient Egypt, just as they understand the difference between a story set in an urban environment as opposed to a rural one. Your story may be set in the past, the present or the future, in a real world or an imagined one. You may wish to write contemporary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, sci fi or dystopian fiction. When it comes to setting – your choices are huge – in fact, unlimited.
Unlike backstory (a requisite element of any novel but not one that must necessarily permeate the entire story), setting is one of the six basic elements of novel-writing. This means that, along with the other five basic elements (plot, character, structure, voice and theme), it must be integrated into every scene.
The three most common mistakes writers make when it comes to setting are:
1. Overlooking it altogether (eg. the scene might be a conversation between two people, but the reader never finds out where and when the scene takes place).
2. Describing the scene in far more detail than the story requires.
3. Moving a character from one scene to the next in an unwieldy manner as a result of not knowing how to simply set the scene.
Luckily, all these errors are easily fixed. If you think you might have overlooked setting in one of your scenes, read through each scene and check whether you have written a sentence or two early on in the scene that enables the reader to imagine where and when the scene takes place. If not, be sure to add these descriptors. Even if you think that what’s important is what is said, not where and when it is said, the where and when is still information the reader will need.
Perhaps you have already set the scene. Have you kept the description of time and place clear and concise? Or is the description overly detailed and hard to follow? Remember that every scene should in some way provide insight into character and advance the plot. Try not to let setting hog too much of the limelight. If you’ve gone overboard when describing your setting, pare it back.
Finally, let’s take a look at how easy it is to move characters from one scene to another just by setting the scene. The key lies in understanding that you don’t have to move your characters – just put them where you want them to be. For example, if you’re moving Tom from the living room to the bedroom, instead of a filler sentence such as, “Tom got up from his chair in the living room and went into the bedroom”, simply begin a new sentence with “Later, in his bedroom…” or leave a white space and begin a new scene with “In his bedroom that evening…”
A white space generally indicates a new scene – a change in time and/or place. If you want to begin a scene hours, days or months after the preceding scene, you don’t need to fill the reader in all that has happened in the interim. If anything of significance has happened, it will most likely have a scene of its own. There is nothing wrong with beginning a scene with a brief time descriptor such as “The following day”, “The next week” or “One month later”. Of course, it would be a mistake to begin all your scenes this way. You might like to begin with a description of place, or with action or dialogue. Eg.:
Tom approached the lane with his eyes firmly on the centre skittle. Though the bowling alley was crowded that evening, he managed to block out the noise of the other bowlers. He had to focus.
“How much did you bet?” asked Jane, as they entered the bowling alley that evening.
Tom winced, not wanting to admit they’d be out on the street if he didn’t win.
In both instances, the setting is taken care of early on, cueing the reader in on time and place.
You can also use setting to add richness to your story by taking your characters somewhere new and exciting, or by depicting the banal in an interesting way. As Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”
Remember, you’re writing a novel, not a film script – no budget restrictions limit your imagination. So have fun. Let your imagination roam. Dare to explore.
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Writing Novels in Australia