Monday, November 29, 2010

Oh setting, where art thou?

Just spent all afternoon searching for a book on setting, only to discover that the only reason I couldn’t find it was because my GPS is too old and cheap to get me to the Highland Village shopping center.

(Bangs head against keyboard.)

In all seriousness though, it really baffles me – given the number and variety of books by people trying to tell you how to write – how few books there are on creating a decent setting. I mean, there are books specifically to help you write novels, short-stories, memoirs and non-fiction. There are books on how to write for romance, chick-lit, speculative fiction, young adult, mysteries, horror, thrillers, Christian inspirational, and erotica. There are books on developing characters, cataloguing character traits and names; how to write heroes, villains and love interests; how to write for comics and movies and TV; how to plot before-hand and afterwards; how to build tension; how write a book in a month and at night and on the backs of napkins at your day job. There are even books entirely devoted to writing dialogue.

But setting? Two books on Amazon, both extensions of longer series on the evolving craft of writing.


It’s not that I don’t know why the books aren’t there. Books on setting don’t sell well because the hundreds of people who want to write books but haven’t are all focused on the Big Two of plot and character. And it’s not like those two things aren’t vital, because they totally are and they totally deserve the attention that they get.

But setting is important too, and not just in gothic or literary fiction.

To make my case, I present the court with my three favorite YA series: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the currently-ongoing Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld and – naturally enough as I am a child of the 90s – the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. All three of these books are critically-acclaimed, runaway hits, and with good reason. They’re all fantastic, with engaging characters, nail-biting plots and some of the best writing the YA bracket has ever seen.

Yet, all of them have one big thing in common: constant praise for their imaginative, detailed and well-developed settings.

Obviously, each author took a different route in developing their worlds. Westerfeld based his alternate history settings on Europe as it was about to tumble into World War I, only filled with the fantastic steampunk and Darwinist creations that redefine everything. Rowling seems to have glanced around her home in the British Isles and simply let her mind wander to “What Ifs…?” filled with magic and a hidden second layer to the world. Meanwhile, Collins’s nation of Panem – though stated to be located in North America – is so alien and fantastic that it must have been grown from the ground up.

What’s more, each of these writers has their setting doing double, triple even quadruple duty. It expresses the theme; drives the plot; hints at the ethos and pathos of the characters; and even communicates secondary themes that don’t apply directly to the plot or character development.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I personally prefer books like this, the ones with a strong, tangible setting. It doesn’t even have to be a genre setting. One of Westerfeld’s earlier books, So Yesterday, is set in New York; and Good Omens is essentially turn-of-the-millennium England with Biblical beasties dropped in. Both books have the same strong setting.

I think setting gets overlooked because it’s literally the background, but it’s something that writers need to be aware of. A strong and engaging setting elevates the already strong and engaging characters and plot to a whole new level. It’s something that I really want to nail for this draft I’m about to start working on, so I wanted to see how other people pulled it off; but since it seems to be a lesser-used technique than most, I’m gonna have to work for my decent advice.

I’ll try again tomorrow. With Google maps directions.

In other news, Glenn Beck will be at the Grapevine Milles “Books-a-Million” for a book signing this Saturday. I’m half-tempted to go and ask him to sign my copy of Machine of Death, the self-published anthology of short stories by various internet personalities that beat him out on his latest monstrosity’s opening day, so he threw a big hissy-fit on national radio. But I’m not that much of a troll. ;)

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