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Setting, environment, topography… and other slippery customers

by | Oct 11, 2018 | Editing Corner, Writing Craft | 12 comments

First paragraphs demand a lot. Personality and clear perspective management. Unique visuals. A sense of setting and mood. A strong hook. Little wonder so many people either:

  • Base their entire novel off a golden first paragraph that popped into their heads at 02:03am
  • Bullet-point the first para and come back to it at the end of the chapter, or even when they’ve completed the first draft of the book.

Back in 2016, I wrote a short story called “The Way, the Truth and the Lifer”, which opens in a care home from which our intrepid hero, encumbered by early-onset Alzheimer’s, is trying to escape for the day. I posted it on our Storytime emailing list for feedback and I’m so glad I did, because my opening three paragraphs caused untold levels of bafflement. I thought I’d seeded multiple clues that Carlsbad House was a care home, but it was only my fellow Brit readers and writers who could visualise the opening scene without trouble. The feedback on the opening to my story gave me a golden opportunity to recast the order in which I presented the information about my hero’s environment, and to choose images which worked better for a transatlantic audience.

I think, up to a point, we all describe what we’re subconsciously familiar with when we’re deep in the flow of the story, or the perspective character’s mindset. As a professional editor, I have several US clients who base their stories in England, and find myself having to amend scenes where the perspective character performs all road manoeuvres as if in charge of a left-hand drive (but without all the conspicuous stress that this entails). I’ve made the same mistake, writing struggles with roundabouts (and other blatant Britishisms) into States-based stories. It’s extremely hard to avoid.

I must confess that until that valuable feedback on my “Lifer” story, setting had always been fairly low on my list of things to worry about when writing. Dialogue, POV management, choreography and emotional journeys seemed to fill my intellectual working space. I’d have to go back and fill in the details of where they were, and how that affected the atmosphere. Because I can’t hear, I often need help writing in the sound effects. I forget those, too.

These days, before sharing a story for critique, I add two more things to my self-editing list:

  1. How quickly have I shown where we are?
  2. Have I done this without presenting the reader with an info-dump?

With a little help from0 my peer editors, a collection of fine books, and a little personal experience, I thought I’d provide a wee list of techniques for setting up your environment while keeping the action moving. Towards the end (for a little light relief), I’ve provided a few examples of what to avoid.

 

If you’re not American, use your mother tongue conspicuously.

The little ‘s’ that I stuck on the end of ‘Towards’ in that last sentence would probably have made some of you flinch. This is how Brits say it, in the same way we say ‘sideways’. It’s not incorrect—just a case of using UK English.

If US English is not your mother tongue, then word choice can be a weapon in your setting arsenal, along with your Anglican spellings (organise, favour, dialogue, manoeuvre, and travelling). This provides thousands of opportunities to establish the use of UK English (and indeed dialect, where appropriate) into the perspective character’s or narrator’s opening lines. Establishing nationality can help to set location expectations. Here is a really handy link to summarise key US vs UK differences:

http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/british-versus-american-style.html

You won’t have this option with all publishers, of course, many of whom insist on US English being used, regardless of the characters’ nationalities. And this doesn’t help our Antipodean pals, whose spelling and punctuation rules have more in common with UK English than US English.

So, other means of establishing place (right down to country and continent), wherever you’re from, are:

  • closeness to (or distance from) well-known cities/landmarks
  • mentioning animal species
  • using place-focused driving language
  • slang
  • architecture
  • socio-demographic terminology
  • or any of the following options…

 

Cross-cultural comparison:

Often a nifty way of declaring a character’s location and his origins in one fell swoop:

They called Grab a ‘good-sized’ village, but you could’ve fitted four Grabs into the ‘one-horse town’ he called home.

 

Temporal comparison:

Harking back to the past when describing an unmoving/unchanging environment can be a succinct way of giving away location:

The ruin loomed in all its Northumbrian glory, the stark landscape giving the impression that the surrounding lands hadn’t been tended any more vigilantly back in the dark ages than they were now.

 

Hyperbole, exaggeration and other satire

Deliberately creating the most extreme version of the environment, and allowing the reader to recognise sarcasm (and subconsciously turn things down a notch), can be an effective way of getting your setting across succinctly. This is done a great deal in fantasy comedy, but if you remove the surreal element of the humour, you can apply the strategy across genres:

Cosy corners and gorgeous beams aside, Regan doubted that any part of the castle had ever been welcoming. He could imagine an unenthused Scottish Monarch trailing from room to room after a latter-day estate agent, reassuring him that the hills and ramparts kept the smellier of the Picts away, and that the tiny, north-facing dungeons kept prisoners nicely cold over winter.

 

Use the gift of environmental interaction

Make the topographical detail relevant to what the character’s doing in the action of the scene:

The cold almost cut through the car. Regan’s left thigh and calf were beginning to punish him for making his getaway in Missy’s stick-shift instead of heading for a garage to hire an automatic with cruise control. He tried not to think about the many miles of I94 between him and the next bathroom stop, the endless fields that would provide no windbreak when he finally had to pull over and rest, or the expression on David’s face when Dave caught him balls-deep in Missy. It was official: Bismarck could now be added to the list of places he couldn’t go without being shot at.

From here, the reader can add a little more history, linking it with the weather, the relentlessness of the journey, and the destination. But there’s a hell of a lot of information already in the paragraph above.

 

Bind the environmental details into the character’s state of mind

You can get an awful lot of information across when your perspective character is in a temper. This is used to great effect in Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’, and pretty much most of Bill Bryson’s travel diaries from ‘Down Under’ onwards. The following snippet has been bastardised (with kind permission) from a friend’s fairly long messenger rant about the joys of finding his way to London from ‘London Luton airport’:

I didn’t want to spend my first night bitching, but a little more travel information would’ve been good. Like, ‘London Luton’ is nowhere near f**king London. The airport’s barely in Luton. It’s like saying ‘San Diego, Hollywood’. Not accurate! So I dive on this train which goes to London via Tanzania, because a direct service at short notice apparently requires a second mortgage to be arranged, and then I get the Spanish Inquisition from the guards at the ticket gate about undershooting my stop. How is it a crime to not stay on the train as long as I’m entitled to remain on the f**king train?

Using character mood to colour the experience of the surroundings is the inverse of the Thomas Hardy Principle/Malaise, where the landscape is relentlessly used as a mirror for character mood. Given that Thomas Hardy wasn’t famed for his light-hearted scenarios or uplifted characters, just a little of that technique went a very long way.

 

And on that note, some setting-relating phenomena to avoid

Countryfile Syndrome: wherein the author over-relies on lengthy strolls through the landscape while their hero mulls upon life’s little problems. There is a limit to which the perspective character’s life choices can be influenced by the pattern of bleak, chilly sheep gathering in the far field, whether or not that pattern is analogous to the cliquey behaviour of the perspective character’s family and friends.

Crap conversationalist syndrome: related to the issue above, except that the writer has forgotten that her perspective character was having a chat with a fellow character at the point where they lapsed into a moody silence in contemplation of the scenery whipping past the car window.

More IKEA, dear: scenes which take place in a relative vacuum, to the point that the reader has no idea if there’s even furniture in the room. This can make sexual choreography rather difficult to visualise.

 

The key point with setting is to keep the details as relevant to what’s going on within the action of the scene as possible. You can layer the details in those quiet, reactive moments where options are being reviewed and decisions made. So long as you don’t take your reader for too many detailed, brooding walks in the process.

 

About the Author Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne is an editor, ghost-writer and semi-successful feller of trees from West Sussex, England. After years of enjoying everyone else's steamy stories, albeit with red pen in hand, Sam was finally bullied into overcoming writer's stage fright by a bossy friend, releasing Single-Syllable Steve in May 2015. Sam also has stories in the anthologies Mad about the Boys (House of Erotica) and His Seed (Lethe press) pending release later this year. Sam has a soft spot for historical fiction, everything ever written by Bill Bryson, and the intricate first-world farces of PG Wodehouse. Favourite hobbies other than writing include cooking and unfair-rules football.

12 Comments

  1. >>Base their entire novel off a golden first paragraph that popped into their heads at 02:03am

    Hmm, this is fraught. Did it with creative writing back in school – bangin’ opening scene, followed by… ugh!

    Having to laugh nervously at the brooding comic. My MC in the story currently unfolding one Storytime spends a LOT of time staring out the window.

    • I wasted quite a lot of time in my creative writing classes precisely for the same reason; my teacher was great on first paragraphs, descriptive writing and hooks–but not so hot on continuation techniques, workable assignments, or how to blend the descriptive writing into the action. As far as she was concerned, if it was miserable and impenetrable, it was art…. (no wonder we struggled to get along).

      Being a personal fan of your unfolding story, I can testify that your landscape and your brooding interweave very nicely indeed 😉

  2. You are a natural who should be teaching MASTER CLASSES. Every point made and example used to back said points was… well, on-point, as the kids say. I’m an American who says and uses “towardS” and “sidewayS” and will fight anyone who doesn’t do the same, so I give you an inappropriately large amount of kudos for keeping your cool as an editor. Amazing stuff as always!

    • Thank you kindly 🙂 And I’m delighted to hear that you feel the same way about the s-embossed directional words because I keep getting told off for them. Heh.

      I’m really glad the article and examples worked for you 🙂 Thanks!

  3. An excellent reminder that just because I know where I’m writing about, it doesn’t follow that anyone else will have a clue unless I give them the clues. As important, you can’t overdo the references without it sounding too obviously a device or that you are carefully putting the furniture in place for its later use.

    Thanks for the tips.

    • Cheers, mate. Yep, sometimes the Feng Shui version of Chekov’s gun can be hard to avoid. Trying to make sure that people know, in advance, that there’s a perfect gap for someone to drop backwards and brain themelves on the fireplace is quite hard to do without pacing the room out 😉

      It’s the vacuum trap that I most often fall into, I find!

  4. Delores Swallows

    Hi Sam

    Yet another stellar post that not only illustrates how much you know, but also illustrates how much I don’t know. People must read my stuff and wonder where the f*ck it’s taking place.

    My biggest beef about the words we use in the UK not working for US readers is the word ‘fanny’.
    It’s such a great word, and I think it’s probably the most used one over here to describe a woman’s fun-bits. But in the US, it refers to your arse-parts. What’s all that about?

    Something from your post alerted my IPB (inner picky bastard)…
    In the ‘excerpt’ about the guy taking Missy’s getaway car – why would his right thigh and calf be affected by a stick-shift car? The right foot still controls the accelerator (gas pedal) and the left would be used for the clutch. Or am I being dumb?
    Also, are David and Dave the same person?
    Sorry – you know me.

    I liked your friend’s rant about Luton Airport. I had a similar thing years ago when I attended a course at Warwick University.
    If you ever go there, the first thing you need to know is that it’s not in Warwick – it’s in Coventry !

  5. Cheers, m’dear! I’m glad you liked the post overall, and the examples, though I’ve now amended the one you picked up on. I’d typed left. And then my in-built mouse kept skipping to different parts of the text (as it often does), and I ended up second-guessing myself into the middle of next year before committing myself to ‘left’ (and yet typing right). This is why everyone needs proofreaders 😀 😀

    I knew about the University of Warwick being in Coventry. Heh. It’s the University of Loughborough being in London that bewilders me 😉

  6. The Luton example reminds me of the time we took two trains to get to Incheon (in Korea), only to discover that Incheon Airport (the main airport for Seoul) was a LONG way from the town of Incheon. Nearly missed our plane!

    Excellent examples. I will admit to occasionally being mystified by some of the vocabulary in tales from our British and Australian authors. Actually, I have more trouble with Australian lingo.

    My own English has become seriously bastardized (or should I say “bastardised”?) through long years of writing for a publisher based in the UK and living in a country where British English has a significant though not exclusive influence. (For instance, they use “in hospital” and “maths”).

    • Curse that far-flung airport! I’m glad you made your flight, though I’m sure the experience didn’t do much for your blood pressure.

      The Netherlands is confusing for English teaching; it depends on the staff! Some teach American English, and others UK English. The attitude is: “It’s still English, and you’ll be good at it.” Very pragmatic, lol.

  7. Nothing like a little setting to bring the story to life! I think as humans in everyday life we don’t spend a lot of time noticing our setting but it constantly colors our feelings. Same thing with stories, unless you’re somewhere very notable setting need not be obtrusive, but it should be there. This is very useful, some ways I didn’t think about getting setting in there Tig : D

    Meno<3

    • I’m glad I was able to suggest ways to sneak the details in without them becoming too overt 🙂 I have a friend who refuses to let the environment affect her state of mindfulness, lol. It’s tempting to write a story about her.

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