Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Here and Now

Sometimes your sins find you out. Imagine my delight – not – when I found my entry into a sort of who-is-who in sf/f and it said something like “often uses the weather for effect and tone.” I knew IMMEDIATELY what they were talking about.

In my first published – I have mentioned that despite the fact I think it’s a fairly decent read, I was still struggling with plotting and making the plotting fit the story, right? – when I became stuck and needed to get myself moving again, I filled in with weather. It rained, it was sunny, it was hot, it... It probably is assigned as a read in meteorological schools the world over.

I feel vaguely guilty about that, because it was eliminated by book two of the series, and now I often go for pages and pages without mentioning a single cloud formation. Unless, of course, it is needed to complicate the characters’ lives – like at the beginning of Gentleman Takes A Chance. (But I guess an entry saying ‘often uses weather to torture characters’ would just make everyone go ‘duh!’)

This is a roundabout way to bring us to our setting, or the place where things take... er... place. I’m highly in favor of setting. It prevents your characters from floating around in ether sometimes – if you remember to give us expressions, say – as giant floating heads, or perhaps (I knew a beginning writer who was notorious for this) just giant floating expression-components (her eyes twinkled. Her mouth twitched. Her nose followed the scent – then realized it was lost and came back to hang out with the mouth and the eyes.) Seriously, if I had to list it from most important to least, my list of why you should spend some time thinking of your setting and making sure it feels “real” to us would go something like this:
1- It gives a sense of reality to the scene. No matter how important the argument or how hot the lovemaking, it rarely takes place in a void. (Unless the characters are aliens.) So give us how people around are looking at them as their voices rise, or perhaps the sound of birds stops overhead. Give us the sheet getting tangled around an ankle. Throw us a crumb so we remember your characters exist.
2 - Worldbuilding. You can bury any number of worldbuilding and even historical clues into setting. “They walked past the tower of Peace, which was built to commemorate the establishment of Peace III after Peace I and Peace II were bombed out of existence.” Or “He leapt from his flying car.” Or “She looked up towards the wizard’s castle” or... “He could smell the unicorn pens. Someone had forgotten to muck them out again.”
3 - Stage business. “Said” might be invisible and it’s certainly preferable to “interrupted”, “objected” or – shudder – “ejaculated” as a dialogue tag, but if you have a page of “he said” “she said” or worse, “he said,” “he said” it can get pretty tedious. Besides, the characters start to feel – to me at least – like they have no bodies and are just talking mouths. Stage business avoids the need to say “he said” like this: “No.” George ran his finger along the shelf and stared at the dust on the fingertip. “No, I don’t believe I found your cigarette case.” It also allows you to build on the character. For instance, perhaps George is an incurable toucher-of-things, not a nitt picky householder and perhaps we can show him touching and fidgeting with everything. (If this is a murder mystery, he probably absent-mindedly picked up that case and set it somewhere.
4- To emphasize moods or bridge an awkward spot. I.e., describing the space ship might just work to give a sense of distance from your last scene before you launch into the new one – because you want to give the idea a month has passed, and that’s hard to believe internally. To make your character seem depressed, you can have him notice peeling paint and dirty floors, for instance, as he goes into a new place.
5- Special effects. Movies pay tons for this. It took me until the year before I was first published to realize people like them, even when all you’re giving them is a description. If your character is in a magical glade, by all means, hit the reader with the eldritch.

A couple of caveats, (they took me long to learn, so I’m going to share them!) Try not to have similar scenes take place in similar places, because it will “feel” repetitive, even if it isn’t. So, don’t have your characters argue in the car twice. Move that second argument to the shopping mall. If you’re writing an historical, try to keep the setting as period as possible and use the opportunity to throw in those cool bits of research you can’t put anywhere else. (i.e., instead of infodumps that make the reader suffer for YOUR art.)
All this said, when I’m stuck for a story, I’ve found starting out in a diner (no, I don’t know why I’m fascinated with diners) usually invites a story to come along...
Do you have a go-to setting? What other ways have you found to use setting? (I’m
sure I missed half a dozen.) What’s your favorite way of making a setting feel real?

*the picture is my son's cartoonified version of me, as "super writer" in front of my favorite diner. Yeah, he DID "superhero" the body a bit.*

Also, for those who haven't checked it out yet, I have a new blog at I even manage to blog almost every day.


MataPam said...

My latest opus just came back from the first reader full of typos circled and notes like "Where are they" and "Who is saying this?" and worse, "Who is this?"

Oops! May have trimmed off a bit too much, here and there. Ahem. Or forgotten to get it down on paper in the first place.

All my Fantasies seem to start in the same village. Mind you that frequently gets edited out later, but my mind starts the story "at home" and goes on from there. I'm not nearly so stuck with the rest of them. Could it be that I have learned something?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yeah, Pam, I chronically used to trim my stories to the bone. I've since learned that little jokes and quips and what not contribute to the readers' enjoyment of the book. They are not, after all, reading non fiction.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good post, Sarah.

I tend to skim description, especially if it goes on for pages, like in LOTR. I try to slip the description into the action, as you suggested.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Oy. There is a quote from Tolkien claiming to be superior to Shakespeare because Shakespeare couldn't describe a tree in pages and pages of prose. (Rolls eyes.)

I'm not going to diss Tolkien. Clearly what he did worked for him. OTOH even when I go on for pages, I prefer that it has something to do with the actual plot/action/characters.

I've been reading romances these last three days and trust me on this, the miles and miles of sex that don't do anything but well, talk about what went where, what position the two were in, etc, just get skimmed. Sex, engineering, descriptions... anything that doesn't advance the STORY gets skimmed. :D

Chris L said...

Hi Sarah,

I read slow...every word. I can't skim, don't ask me why. When I try it just doesn't feel right. So I do suffer through lengthy passages of description.

But like you say, a degree of description is needed to develop place. Thanks for the tips.

My go-to place is embarrassingly cliché - the bridge. I tend to make the bridges of my ships small and cramped. This forces me to use other settings for scenes that need a wider angle. It also forces the characters together (for better or worse).

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

Uh... you're not related to my husband, right? The man who forces me to sit to the end of truly awful movies because he physically CANNOT leave in the middle?

As for your making bridges small -- good coping strategy. You are dealing with it, I see.

I confess writing sf was hard because there are so many places our back brain thinks it knows -- but it turns out to be Star Trek...

Chris L said...

No, don't think I have any relatives over there. Although I do sit to the end of most bad movies - excepting Starship Troopers 3, which set a whole new low for the movie industry in general.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL Chris:




I HAD to watch all of these, while making plots to kill someone as soon as I came out.

Chris McMahon said...

Now come on, Sarah. That is your real picture:)

V Bridges Hoyt said...

Hi ... I just found your blog. How interesting! I will be following along now. I also married into the Hoyt family. Coincidental that I found you this morning? Perhaps serendipitous!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris M,


Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Ah, but are those the Hoyts originally of Norwalk Connecticut? (Actually, as far as we know there was only one Hoyt diaspora into the US, so ultimately, probably, yes.)

So we're... um... sort of cousins by marriage. Are you also a writer?

Welcome to Mad Genius. Stick around a while. Sometimes we're entertaining and -- rarely -- we're useful too.