Last updated on April 7th, 2019
by Marie Valentine, editor and proofreader
Time and place are key pillars of your story structure. Without them, tales fall into fragments.
Neglect setting at your own risk. Readers who don’t know where they are get frustrated, fast. You need to put the players someplace, otherwise the story will float out of control into the ether, as will your reader’s attention.
Place is paramount
Did you ever zoom into writing a story so fast-paced with action that you never bother locating the characters? Yep, me too. “In medias res,” dropping the reader right into the thick of the scene, works well in playwriting because the stage as already set. Have you noticed how films often open on landscape views of city skylines or country roads, situating the viewer immediately? Location is often the crux of the story.
Think of all the incredible memoirs and novels defined by place: Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder), A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (Betty Smith), Cannery Row (John Steinbeck), Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed), and fantastical places as well: Hogwarts (J. K. Rowling), Narnia (C. S. Lewis), Middle-earth (J. R. R. Tolkien), etc. The stories have a third element beside plot and character holding all the pieces together: setting.
With physical location, culture and civilization lend setting elements that can help a reader orient themselves mentally within the action taking place and the people performing it. For example, you won’t find a Quidditch match anywhere outside the magical realm of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Fish for breakfast is more likely served in Japan than Nebraska. Locale dictates custom.
Without the powerful force of setting, characters would not be who they are. Daily habits and rituals relate to place. Vernacular in dialogue will also locate the characters in time. Consider the differences in locution between Shakespeare’s Romans in Julius Caesar’s time versus musicians in 1920s Chicago. They vary, you dig? Groups of people at different places and times will speak differently, so go there and listen (or if you’re writing about the past, study the era) to make your writing stand out.
Timing it right
If you want to indicate years passing in an epic novel, think about structure. Some tools you can use to show time’s passage are starting a new chapter or including a section break. You can even use time as an organizing principle for each chapter, such as by labeling chapters based on the day, month, or year. You can go more micro, too, such as by pointing out the hour in the day, or offering a flashback to a moment in the distant past that informs the present. Time is fun to play with, but don’t get so carried away the reader doesn’t know where the present moment of main action is happening.
Separate episodes by chapter to show beginnings and ends of important events. Timing ties right into plot, which affects story pacing immensely. Timing is everything in fiction—not only when key info is revealed but also regarding what events are giving attention and for how long.
Much too much
The flip side of scarce setting issues is a too-vast quantity. Consider toning down multiparagraph analyses by sketching situations more generally. Sometimes authors become overly invested in a scene holding steady to their perceived vision—the table is oak, the curtains are paisley print, the room is 11×10 feet—why does it matter? Don’t micromanage the imaginative sprawl fiction can incite in an alert and thought-provoked reader. Let them design the curtains and table themselves unless it’s a key plot detail (e.g., the paisley print camouflages a deadly killer hiding in the curtains).
Make sure the pacing is right by imagining how long it takes to do something. Do we need to read four pages about a man eating breakfast and driving to work? It needs to be relevant. So, don’t spend too much time on the descriptions of place or mundane moments. A palace does not need to be described down to the number of stones paving its floor, and I don’t need to know the protagonist’s toothpaste brand.
If there is a multiple-page detour into the contents of someone’s bookshelves, as a reader I hope that this information will be useful at a future moment of the story. Otherwise I might feel misled down a dead-end rabbit’s hole. Use key setting details to reveal character and plot, but don’t overinform at risk of bloating the story and misrepresenting a detail’s importance.