Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.
A quick ramble about setting.
Writers, you need it. You might not want it. You might not be good at it, but setting is like a good fart. Sometimes you have to expel a little gas out of your rectum in order to be your best.
Similarly, you want to have some setting in your story to make that story be its best.
If you are a pretentious writer, you might want to say, “I want readers to be able to imagine the story is in their town or city or part of the world,” but that’s not going to work at all.
Just by defining a tree you are telling the reader something about the setting.
Like if you write:
She stared up at the palm tree.
You’re giving the reader clues. A palm tree will not be in Iceland. They are somewhere comparatively warm.
If you write:
She got out of bed.
You’re giving the reader a clue that she is wealthy enough to have a bed and in a culture or world where people sleep in beds.
And the thing is that clues are needed. Specific clues. Real clues. Without a setting, without a place where the story happens and a time where the story happens, the reader floats there in the sky, ungrounded, unanchored.
And you know what happens when a reader floats in the sky? The reader drifts away. So you want to fart in some specific setting to help the reader sniff out and remember where they are.
Being specific anchors the reader. It ties them to your story and its characters. You will remember a fart that smells like eggs mixed with tuna mixed with a McDonald’s french-fry. So be specific.
More than that though? Setting anchors your characters and your plot. Place makes us (and our characters) who they are. It gives a story atmosphere. It gives the character a world to interact with.
Think of a creepy Stephen King novel. It’s creepy because he takes certain aspects of Maine and creepifies them. Think of Crazy Rich Asians or The Bridgerton novels. They are luxurious because of the places where they take place AND the places where they take place help inform the novels.
A rabid dog cornering you in a car isn’t as scary when you are in Boston. That’s because there are a ton of cops there and animal control officers, unlike a small town in Maine.
Meeting a super-wealthy potential mother-in-law in her mansion isn’t as scary when she’s just the mom next door in her split-level.
You want to anchor your readers in that setting every time it changes. So, yes, you’ll want to fart out that setting multiple times in your story. You can have a big city for your story—Bar Harbor, Maine—and a smaller setting—Carrie’s office. And once you show us readers where we are, you want to make sure to slowly reveal aspects of setting rather than shoving it all down our throats at once in the first paragraph. Too much gas at once often pushes the modern reader far, far away, holding their noses and writing reviews that say, “THIS STINKS!”
There is a balance here.
Setting is like a fart. Even if you don’t like to write it, it has to happen.
Without setting, your readers float away or are just in the dark, confused, lost, untethered.
Setting is important for the characters in your story. It gives them something to play off of, interact with, it informs who they are, it shows who they are, it creates who they are (I am currently a woman of the comma splice), and it gives your story atmosphere.
Ground your characters whenever the setting changes.
Reveal that setting slowly.
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