Welcome to the fourth and final post in this series on novel
writing for beginners. So, where were we? We’d overcome fear and
procrastination. We’d got to know some likely characters. We’d developed a
story idea into a plot. Now we need to consider setting.
And there are a few things to consider when deciding when
and where to situate the story. Obviously if it’s a historical novel, then
when, and most likely where, will be implicit in your story content. And the
same will be true, at least to some extent, with any type of genre fiction.
Science fiction is likely to be away from planet Earth, crime novels will involve
a police station and so on.
However, even with genre, there will still be decisions that
you have to make. Is your Victorian thriller set in the homes of the
aristocracy, the middle classes or amongst the poor on the streets? Is your
tale of the Roman occupation told from the emperor’s court or the subjugated
With contemporary fiction, the choice of setting is wide. Is
the story centred around a family home, village, city, workplace, or in the
midst of a ritual such as a wedding or a funeral?
Sometimes the setting is almost a character in its own
right. It may dominate and determine the plot. It may evolve and change as the
story develops. For example, if your story is one about survival on a remote
mountain top, vast desert, or alien planet, the nature of the environment that
the characters are in is crucial to the events and outcomes.
Once you have decided on your setting you need to bring it
to life. It’s exciting – there might be houses to furnish, landscapes to form
and plant, cities and worlds to create from scratch. Then again you might set
it somewhere real and just tweak the details.
Whatever you do, make the setting consistent and coherent. I
draw floor-plans of the houses in my novels – so that I don’t inadvertently
move the kitchen from the back to the front of the house, or shift a staircase
from one side of the building to the other. Similarly with fictional villages
and towns – drawing a map is a good idea. Think about what the characters see
when they look out of the window, walk down the street, enter their workplace,
fly their spaceship, approach the battlefield, sit in their kitchen…
Make sure the setting is believable and has integrity. Even
when, or rather, especially when, creating a non-Earthly world. Even if a
planet or parallel world is completely manufactured by you, it should still
obey its own integral rules of physics.
Give enough detail – using all the senses – so that the
reader can begin to inhabit the world of your book. But don’t put in long
chunks of bulk description. Feed in the details as you would with character
traits. ‘Show don’t tell’ is just as applicable with setting. There’s also no
need to repeat these details. Once your reader knows that the main character
has a cream leather sofa, don’t go on about it. Trust your reader to remember.
Also, trust your reader to fill in the gaps – as you would do with the
characters’ physical appearance. Good writers give just enough detail to set
the reader on their own imaginary path. Just think how annoying it can be when
a book you love is dramatised for television, and the characters’ physical
appearances and the look of their homes and villages are dictated by the
casting director and the set designer.
So creating your novel’s setting should be fun, but keep it authentic
and credible. Give enough of a map that the reader can find their way in and
orientate themselves, but leave them enough room to explore and make sense of
your created world for themselves.
And that just about wraps up this ‘Just Do It’ series. The
intention was to get those of you who are aspiring writers to take the plunge
and become actual writers and to give first timers some basic tips on the
foundations of novel writing. There are further aspects such as use and quality
of tone, atmosphere and style and the all-important voice which are also
necessary to novel writing. But let’s keep these for another time, further down
For now get the characters, plot and setting assembled and
set off. Go on, just do it!