Setting

Setting establishes mood. Go to the bookstore and open up a bunch of books and read the first line. You will find the majority of opening sentences have something to do with setting and evoking an emotion in the reader. That's why "It was a dark and stormy night" is such a cliché—there is always a large degree of truth in clichés.

Setting can be a character in your story—think who the antagonist is in Krakeur's Into Thin Air. Mount Everest and the weather. Some writers have totally wrapped their story around their setting and it's what makes their book unique. Caleb Carr's stories are mysteries set in New York City in the 19th century and it is the setting, which sets them apart.

Next time you're sitting watching your favorite sitcom or TV drama pay a little attention when the scene shifts. In NYPD Blue, every time the scene shifts back to the station house, don't they show the outside of the building for a second or so before moving inside? In Ally McBeal, don't they show either the law firm or courthouse for a second, before jumping into the scene? Ever wonder why the director does that? They do it to orient you as the viewer. As a writer you have to keep your reader oriented.

Setting consists of two parts, even though most people only think of one. It is the where and the when of your story. And there is so much more to the where that most people see at first glance. Think about the different places you've lived (if you've lived different places). There was more than just the place being different. Weren't the people somewhat different? The weather? The socio-economic structure? The yearly seasons? The physical terrain? The architecture? The list could go on and on, but the key is not to get caught up in simply describing what a place looks like. It takes much more than that to come alive.

I have found this to be particularly true in writing science fiction. Maybe it's simply because I've become more aware of the entirety of the setting when I can't take anything for granted. When my main character steps through a portal and gets sucked into the fourth dimension, I suddenly become much more aware that I have to describe everything down to the very texture of the air they breath.

However—you knew there was a however coming didn't you? However, like everything else, you just can't slam the breaks on your plot and wax eloquently about the fierce north wind roaring through your chapter. It has to come when the reader needs to know about it.

How much is too much detail? If you can take it out and the reader who knows nothing about your story other than what he's read so far doesn't miss it and doesn't need it.

One thing I do highly recommend though, is a thing I call "set", short for "set the scene." When you start a new chapter or change perspective I think you have to relatively quickly (in first two paragraphs perhaps?) orient the reader as to:

-Where is the locale?

-When in the timeline is this?

-What is the point of view, and if it is a character's, which character?

Answering those questions "sets" the scene. And by the end of the scene, you have answered the most critical question: WHY?

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