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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 02
Feb
2016

Setting

Writing

Hey, one of the things my teachers are always telling me I need to improve on in my writing is setting. Even in this simple question, you can note the complete absence of any indications of time and space. Seeing as my teachers are all incompetent, you got any tips that could help me?

Adam’s Neighbour

Setting is very important. Without setting, your characters would float helplessly in a formless void. I definitely recommend setting your story somewhere, so that they can move about and order coffees.

I’m not a big setting guy. You probably knew that. Probably I am half your problem, since you think my opinion worth writing in for. Maybe you should stop reading books like mine. But if we’re separating stories out into their constituent parts (which kills them, but anyway), setting ranks very low. Here’s a list of some things that might be in a scene or story, from most to least important, according to me:

  1. Someone wants something

  2. One person says something that the other person can’t think of a good reply to

  3. The feeling that something bad is going to happen soon

  4. Guess what, something wasn’t like you thought

  5. The feeling that something good is going to happen soon

  6. Somebody dies

  7. Where everybody is

  8. How old they are

  9. What they’re wearing

But setting is important. A good setting makes everything more believable. It’s just something I tend to leave until last, once everything else is working. Because no-one loves a book for its setting, and it’s relatively easily changed. This isn’t a film where you have to rebuild the sets. You can do it with a sentence here and there. Small details, implying larger ones. Like if we’re in a hospital, you don’t want to describe the walls, or the color of the uniforms, or say how many rooms there are. We’ve all seen plenty of hospitals; that stage is prebuilt in our heads. But you can mention an old guy shuffling by in urine-soaked pajama pants, or a woman sitting up doing her lipstick in her bed, or the bucket catching leaks behind the nurses’ desk. Something different and suggestive like that.

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