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Location, Location, Location

January 18, 2011


Writers often spend a great deal of their time concentrating on developing authentic dialogue (spoken by fleshed out, 3D characters), and on creating a coherent plot, contained within a sensible structure. All well and good, but how often do we give setting, or location, only the most cursory of nods?

Camden Markets

Setting is by far one of the most important parts of storytelling. Think how many stories begin with “In a faraway kingdom…” or “In a galaxy far, far away…” Location, or setting, not only helps define genre (‘the Wild West’ informs the Western, while noir is often set in grimy or shadowy urban landscapes), it also gives us a sense as to why things happen the way that they do – The Thing just wouldn’t work outside of the Arctic, and nor would Twister be even remotely plausible if it was set in the Home Counties of England. Beyond that, the setting can almost become a character in itself – Mordor is a physical manifestation of the otherwise absent Sauron, while the island and its moods in Lord of the Flies reflects the transformation of the boys.

So how do you go about writing a good setting, or choosing a location?

St Martin in the Fields

If you’re writing fantasy, you essentially have carte blanche to write whatever you want. Alice in Wonderland would be a perfect example! Science fiction in space is open to almost boundless possibilities, and even science fiction on Earth can be bent whichever way you want. Futuristic settings, or alternate realities, let you go crazy with the invention. I’d recommend Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books for a good example of alternate realities. Swords’n’sorcery-style fantasy requires the kind of geography associated with the likes of Lord of the Rings – think castles, forests, plains, etc. Fairly generic, but as you don’t need to have visited, you get to decide what goes where.

Of course, if you’re writing the kind of fantasy wherein weird stuff happens to ordinary people, then you’ll want to ground your story in a more realistic setting. After all, the weird happening becomes all the more weird when set against a mundane background. In this case, you’ll need more of a grasp of where your story is taking place. You can set it in your hometown and just change the names, or you can keep the setting intact. It helps to keep things believeable – one of my many problems with 28 Weeks Later was how wantonly they screwed with London geography. Two of the characters are supposed to get to Wembley from Westminster via the tube tunnels, despite the fact that they’d need to change lines on the way! Once you annoy someone in that way, it’s difficult to persuade them to further invest in your story. You’ve broken the ‘suspension of disbelief’. These issues equally apply to other genres outside of fantasy.

Murky day on the Thames

But what if you want to set your story somewhere that you’ve never visited? Google Maps or Street View can give you a good insight into what a place looks like, how the streets are laid out, and how people interact with the space around them. Of course, you could always go down the Neil Gaiman route, and give your location the Neverwhere treatment – translate place names into their literal meanings (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it as a masterclass on location). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been as the places are given a whole new meaning by you.

Of course, you could always treat yourself to a holiday and visit that pretty Alpine town you want to use as a backdrop to a 1920s murder mystery…
Icy Sedgwick

Blown far from her Northern homeland, Icy now lives and works in old London town.

She’s only 27 but she remembers the days when she wrote stories in crayon. She likes writing about everything from grave robbers to telepathic parrots, though she just began  a novel about a superhero.

She spends her days running an office, and her nights hunched over her laptop. She dispensed with sleep some time ago. Icy has had various stories published online, and has just released her first e-book collecting the episodes of her very first web serial. It’s a tough job…
  1. adampb permalink
    January 18, 2011 5:48 am

    Sometimes you forget how integral location is to a narrative. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. January 18, 2011 7:02 am

    some great tips here Icy, thanks for the reminders… great photos as well !

  3. January 18, 2011 7:05 am

    Location/setting is usually my favourite part of a story to set up! It’s great if you can turn your setting into a character in its own right, or get it to reflect the moods of the characters/plot.

  4. January 18, 2011 7:52 am

    One of my favorite movies suffers from having the characters take three days to drive from St. Louis to Chicago, a five-hour drive at most, even with wacky hijinks along the way.

    Google maps has been my scene-setting & fact-checking friend for a long time.

  5. January 18, 2011 8:20 am

    What a great post. Here’s something else about setting: it can sometimes suggest a plot. Tom Wolfe said, “I look for milieu first: the setting of a story before the story itself.” Jack Bickham had this happen to him: “Medical research done for my novel Halls of Dishonor gave me considerable additional information about the medical setting, which was one of the inspiration for a later book called Miracleworker, another medical story. The germ of the plot for Miraclework, as a matter of fact, came from an accidental encounter with a medical supply “detail man” (salesman) during a research visit for the other novel.” So sometimes a setting can prompt the story.

  6. January 18, 2011 5:25 pm

    Tony – Google Maps is a god send!

    Jim – Exactly! I’ve written stories before where I’ve wanted to set something in that particular place, so often it’s a case of extrapolating the narrative from the setting. Lots of fun.

  7. Matt permalink
    January 18, 2011 6:42 pm

    While I enjoy describing setting equally as I do writing dialog, I’m having trouble striking the right balance in my writing. Sometimes it feels I have three pages of dialog, then followed by three pages of setting. Any tips to help strike the right balance between the two?

  8. January 19, 2011 11:53 am

    Matt: Below is something I wrote regarding your question. Hope I’m not intruding on this board, but it seems that this might apply to your question:

    Not all settings deserve the same attention from the writer. If your setting is fascinating, set it out in more detail and at greater length. A slaughterhouse is worth 200 words, and so is a mine shaft, a bordello, a Hong Kong sweat shop, a jet fighter cockpit, and wherever your 23rd Century hero landed when she accidentally shot through a wormhole. But a dull setting—a living room, which we’ve used as a backdrop only because it couldn’t be helped, despite a lot of thought—deserves only thirty words.

    If your setting is highly interesting and so worth considerable description, don’t dump the description all in one place, a big block of uninterrupted text. Several sentences on the setting here, then more dialogue, then another sentence or two about the setting, then some action, and perhaps another couple sentences about the setting. There’s no need to paint the picture of the setting for the reader all in one place in the novel. The description can be broken up, and set out here and there.

    Also, when the action is fast, the description of the setting should be short. If Ranger Smith is running for his life because a cougar is chasing him, now is not the time for a 300-word description of the forest. The reader wants to see if the cougar catches dinner, not read about whether the daisies in the meadow are in bloom, and whether the mountain in the distance has glaciers on its northern face.

    The same is true for dialogue. If the characters are in intense discussion, and something critical is about to be revealed to a character and to the reader, avoid long descriptions of the setting. The reader wants to hear them talk.

    Here’s a caution. Setting can be a powerful tool for a writer. But your novel is not a National Geographic magazine. Readers do not buy most novels for the setting. They want characters and story. While well-done settings can contribute mightily to the readers’ enjoyment, settings aren’t the reason the bookstore customers will buy your novel. So when in doubt about the length of a setting’s description, it’s probably best to make it shorter rather than longer.

  9. January 19, 2011 11:31 pm

    Makes total sense that this post comes from you Icy! Location and setting strikes me as one of the strongest elements of your writing, especially Vertigo City

  10. Matt permalink
    January 20, 2011 5:24 pm

    Jim: Your response was extremely helpful to me! Thank you!

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