Setting Set Up

On January 14, 2010, Gail Zuniga posted this comment:  I’m wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?

In general I like the hints approach.  I worry that loading down a first chapter with description will prevent a reader from getting engaged in the story.  But there are many exceptions.  You may want to start with description to create atmosphere or to set a mood.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt starts this way.  The entire book turns on a first descriptive chapter, and I love it.  The first chapter of Hawaii by James Michener (not for children) is devoted to the geological development of the island.  Many readers adore this chapter, but I never managed to drag myself all the way through it, although I enjoyed the rest of the book when I read it decades ago.

A setting may be intrinsically fascinating, and knowing it may be critical to reader understanding.  For example, suppose your story starts in a tunnel that’s inhabited by giant spiders whose webs are works of art and a bunch of eco-tourists is entering the tunnel, then you may want to go into some depth (no pun intended) about the tunnel and the webs, and I’d guess the reader will be happy.  I certainly wouldn’t toss a book for going on about spider art.

Of course the kind of story you’re writing has some bearing on how much setting you include.  If you’re working on a thriller or an adventure story, and you want action-action-action, you may need to keep setting to a minimum.  The reader gets only the details he needs.  If there’s a bicycle chase, the reader will probably need information about the bikes.  The villain on a lightweight racing bike will have an advantage over the hero on a mountain bike, unless a mountain is involved.  And you’ll probably want the reader to see the bikes – possibly shiny red for the racing bike and rusty green for the mountain bike.  The reader will need to know if the chase is in a city or on a rural dirt road, and maybe or maybe not that it starts in front of the courthouse.  Almost certainly the reader will not have to know that there aren’t many free parking spots along the street – unless that’s important.

Everything depends on everything else.  In a thriller or an adventure story, the author may decide to skimp on other elements in addition to setting.  Thoughts, depth of characterization, dialogue, relationships among characters, all may be streamlined for the sake of a fast pace.  I’m not making a judgment.  I like a story that gallops.  And other kinds of stories, too.

Sometimes setting is a tool for character development.  When the reader sees Kevin’s bedroom, for instance, she learns something about Kevin or his parents.  The route Kevin takes to school, if he has a choice, will be revealing.  Maybe he likes to pass a particular house because his old math teacher used to live there.  The author may want to linger at the front gate and show what Kevin cares about.

Setting can be an instrument of plot.  In my novel, Dave at Night, Dave is sent to an orphanage so forbidding that he is desperate to get away.

This is the beginning of Fairies and the Quest for Never land, which will be out in June:

    “Gwendolyn Jane Mary Darling Carlisle,” Grandma whispered, putting down her teacup with trembling fingers, “you are Wendy Darling returned to life.”
    For her seventh birthday, Gwendolyn had come to breakfast wearing a white dress trimmed with eyelet lace.
    “Fetch the scrapbook from my dressing table, dear,” Grandma said.  “I want to see.”

I never tell the reader whether breakfast is eaten in the dining room or the kitchen or what the room looks like or even what Gwendolyn or her grandmother eat.  I do happen to mention orange juice in passing, but that’s it.  However, later, I tell the reader about Gwendolyn’s street of row houses because the information is momentarily necessary in the story.  I provide much more detail about Fairy Haven on Never Land, both because the place is central to the plot, and also because it’s central to Gwendolyn herself.

Setting isn’t an issue only in the first chapter of a book.  Stories move.  We have to reveal setting continuously.

So how do you present setting to your reader?  As it comes along for the most part.  If you’re writing from a single viewpoint, whether in first person or third, you can show the reader the sights, sounds, and smells as your main character encounters them, even in a place he knows well.  It’s always handy when a main character is in a new place, though.  If Kevin starts a new school, he’ll be paying attention, and the description will come delightfully naturally.

Sometimes it’s hard to work in setting information.  Say Kevin visits his friend Julie, which he’s often done in the past.  They sit  in the living room where there’s a fish tank.  The fish are going to be part of the story, so the reader needs to know about them, because you don’t want fish erupting out of nowhere.  I don’t like it when writers convey information in an unnatural way.  I’m opposed to having Kevin say, “So, Julie, I see your dad is still keeping the fish tank.”  Kevin wouldn’t say that, because they both see the fish tank and know it’s Julie’s dad’s hobby.  But he might say, “I always think the fish are staring at me.”  Or you might describe the room in Kevin’s thoughts.  Since he’s been there before you need a hook, not much of a hook, something small, like, The room always looked heavy, as if its gravity could sink the house.  Two long sofas, five chairs, the fish tank, the cabinet full of china, the thick drapes.  If Kevin has a poetic mind he might think that even the air, with its dots of filtered sunlight, have weight.  And there, nestled in with the other details, is the fish tank.  This method is particularly effective if you don’t want the reader to linger on the fish.  Suppose you want the fish event, whatever it is, to be a surprise.  You’ve informed the reader that the tank is there, but you’ve emphasized something else, the somberness of the room.

Setting is a big topic, and this has been a long post.  If you have more questions on the subject, please post them.

Here’s a prompt:  Your main character has lost something.  She (or he) backtracks to search for it.  In the time since she was there, even if that was only five minutes before, the place she goes to has become haunted.  This place may not be a house or a graveyard.  Go!

Save what you write, and have fun!

  1. Very interesting.

    When I read a book, I like to know what the environment is like. I don't need to know every little thing, but I don't like to have to imagine the main character's surroundings without any help from the author. It IS good to mention little bits (like the fishtank) in passing.

    In one of my earlier novel plotlines, the first chapter seemed to be just description. That really didn't work for me. I was sure my reader was going to be bored to death.

  2. Thanks so much for continually answering our questions. It's so helpful! I do worry that this will interfere with your book writing though. Are you still glad you started this blog? I know we are, and I hope you are, too.

    And just think—soon you'll have enough fodder for "Writing Magic 2" (with a more clever title, of course). 😉

  3. April–Thank you for asking. So far the blog is helping my writing. It reminds me of things I need to keep in focus. Everybody can help by spreading the word about the blog. And yes, there will be a WRITING MAGIC 2 eventually, and who knows, maybe I'll get into double digits! My editor has already said yes to #2.

  4. Ha, yes! What a wonderful idea, it never even occured to me (that seriously). I love the fish tank example, it really brings things into perspective.
    Just so you know, I tell anyone I think would like to know that you have a blog – I don't want anyone else missing out on something as wonderful as this, or think that their fav author didn't have a blog when she did… 🙂

  5. This is a helpful post. I think setting is hard to pull off in terms of too much detail or too little. One of my favorite settings is in Robin McKinley's "Spindle's End." She dedicates the whole first chapter to drawing out the magical country where her story is set. It makes me feel like the country is real, like it could be in a history textbook or something. And it is, quite honestly, one of my favorite parts of that book. But I don't think a lot of people can pull of that much description in the first chapter without losing the reader.

    Eh. I guess it depends on how it's executed.

  6. Wow, a really great post. I've been following your blog, Miss Levine, for a while and its brilliant! I've never been more inspired to write than after reading one of your prompts. But its more than just inspiration, I actually do rush out and start sribbling away on a rough sheet. Thank you for sharing all those tips with us, not too many published authors are as willing to share with others (especially fans!). And I'm thrillied about Writing Magic 2!
    I wish you all the best in your writing.=)

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I've been having problems with balancing action and setting in my book. I like to describe everything so that the reader can visualize the scene easily, but sometimes I think I've put in a little too much detail. That's probably why my work-in-progress is WAY too long. I'm going to have to go through it all and figure out what's necessary and what's not.

    Your blog is so helpful – thanks again!

  8. Lizzy–The third Disney fairy book, FAIRIES AND THE QUEST FOR NEVER LAND will be out in June, and a picture book, BETSY RED HOODIE, which is sort of a sequel to BETSY CRIED WOLF will be out in August.

  9. Wow, a lot to think about here. Sometimes I feel I am not descriptive enough (probably because of all the JK Rowling books) but maybe I should just listen to my brain more. I've noticed some scenes come easy and flow right into the story, others are a struggle. Perhaps they are unnecessary then.

    Liz H. Allen

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