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How you go about describing time and place--various styles and perspectives.
Believable Fiction: Time and Place

Chapter 7

taken from Ron Rozelle's

Description and Setting

         Nothing so solidly anchors a work of fiction in the readers' minds than knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in your story or novel, and as importantly, they--along with the characters that will do things in there--provide you with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply reporting information. Here are a few ways for you to put your readers in the times and places where those stories can emerge.

The Credibility of Your Setting

         We seem to be on the constant lookout for some level of reality--of credibility--in real life that we think fiction denies us. That's why the phrase "stranger than fiction" packs such a punch. That's why when someone says that a particular movie or book is "based on a true story" they are implying that the fact somehow elevates it from events and characters that have been fabricated by a storyteller.

         Your stories should really happen in the mind of the reader. We're really talking about two things here:

1. establishing your characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it could possibly take place, and

2. the effective conveyance of those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.

         One of the best ways to make sure these two things happen is to pay close attention to your setting. Pay close attention to the details you want and need to convey in a scene and then chose the very best words you can come up with to describe those details. A list--kept close by when you are writing--of all the things you feel need to be included will be quite helpful to you. This means thinking about your writing before you sit down to punch out the first draft. From a pre-written list, you can check off the things that you include, and make little notes--like "use later"--beside others. Also helpful will be other lists, perhaps of adjective possibilities, metaphors, or similar candidates.

         The end result of all this thinking and scribbling will be a work of fiction that will bring your readers in and give them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.

Making a Plot Graph

         Completing one of these for each and every scene in your short story or novel chapter will help you to locate, and then remember, all of the details that you need to establish in your setting. Then, place each one side by side to provide you with a linear representation of your overall plan. It also lets you see at a glance if some of your minor characters are popping up too often, or not often enough. Prominently placed on the wall in the room where you do most of your writing, this graph will help you to pinpoint problems and make modifications. It might also provide you with the reassurance that progress is actually being made, something that all writers need to feel when working in the trenches of a project.


Scene Number

Clock Time/'Place
Weather Conditions

Architecture (Layout of the Room or Place)

Characters in this Scene

(Very) Brief Summary of Action

Things, Actions Needing Description

The Big Picture and the Small

         You first need to decide if you wish to start with a wide frame, and then tighten you focus, or if you want to begin with a narrow viewpoint, and work within it.

The Macrocosm

         The word macrocosm actually means the totality of everything, as in a universe, but for our purposes it indicates a large setting as opposed to a specific one. You can give a glimpse of the totality, and then move your readers to a smaller, more detailed place.

         Locations can be described by their appearance on a map. What does the United States look like to you? It strikes me as a hefty side of beef.

         Once you've come up with a visual image that works, try different ways to work it into your description. A metaphor might be the way to go: Don't underestimate Italy, the slender boot poised to kick a field goal with Sicily, or maybe a simile will be your best bet: Cape Cod stretched itself into the Atlantic like an arm flexing its muscles, its fists clenched tight against whatever the ocean might bring.

         Another way to convey the big picture is to let your reader's mind's eye move across the setting, rather than down into it, like the slow panning of a camera across the landscape of a widescreen movie. Consider this paragraph from Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo:

The light crept down the hills, then swam across the shallow river valley until it reached the field where the Alamo stood, and then moved on to the village and the river beyond. In a cypress tree along the banks, a hawk sat ruffling its feathers, shaking off the cold that had creeped into its bones during the night and beginning to rouse its mind from the sleep that held it fast.

         This use of a visual description is considerably more effective than simply saying the sun rose. Harrigan also makes good use of personification by having just one thing, the light, creep and swim. He moves that light gradually over the Alamo and then on to the village and past it, as if illuminating the set where important things are about to be starting. Then, when he has the stage lit, he focuses on the smallest of things: a single, sleepy hawk in a tree.

         The use of dialogue also offers another opportunity to establish a tiny setting inside a larger one. This passage comes from Thornton Wilder's Our Town:

"I never told you about the letter that Jane Crofit got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter, and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofit; the Crofit Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire: the United States of America . . . Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope."

You will more than likely not make your microcosm as all-inclusive as the last example, but do search for opportunities to occasionally give your readers the big picture--the panorama or bird's eye view--before you focus in on a much smaller place and situation. This overall view won't be something you'll want to use more than once in a short story, and probably not more than that in a novel, but it does serve to remind readers that your specific setting is only one piece in a much larger puzzle.

         Description of or reference to a macrocosm will work nicely for you occasionally, but its opposite, the microcosm, is where you will be setting most of your fiction.

The Microcosm

         We're talking here about a little world--a world in small. The home you grew up in might be exactly that for you, populated by people who sometimes went out in the bigger world, but always came back to that more important one. It might have offered safety and stability; it almost certainly provided nourishment and shelter, and hopefully love and support. It was probably an independent, self-sufficient place, what Robert Frost refers to as "a place apart".

         To your way of thinking, that home--and perhaps your entire hometown--was incredibly clearer and more distinct than the wider world beyond it. That clarity and distinction is what you need to aim for in your fiction. If a particular room in your story or novel is going to be important--or if important things are going to happen there--then it should not be just a generic room. It should be the room you envision in which something in your story will be played out.

         As an example, look at this from The Ghost Writer by Phillip Roth. A young narrator is led into a room by a famous writer:

The living room he took me in to was neat, cozy, and plain: a large circular hooked rug, some slipcover easy chairs, a worn sofa, a long wall of books, a piano, a phonograph, an oak library table systematically stacked with journals and magazines . . . Beyond the cushioned window seats and the colorless cotton curtains tied primly back I could see the bare limbs of big dark maple trees and fields of driven snow. Purity. Serenity. Seclusion. All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling. I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live.

That room makes quite the impression on the narrator, so it should make as much of one for the reader. Look back at the fine details put in to make this room just right: the comfortable, worn furniture, that table stacked with books and journals, the nice scenery through the window, even the author's succinct, one-word assessments. Then look at the declaration at the end. It's a room the narrator will never forget.

         You will need details just like this in your fiction in order to bring rooms and streets, and parks, and many other places to life for your readers. Let's say you have a character being interviewed for a job; she's sitting in someone's office and answering questions as they are asked. What sort of room is it? Is it a corner office with a breathtaking view of the city, which would indicate the person is a big cheese? Are there photographs of his family? Is it a dark place, with lots of paneling and leather chairs, or a bright room with big windows and track lighting? What is there about the room that might help the reader see more clearly the personality of the man who inhabits it, or the nature of the position the women is seeking? Maybe there are documents scattered about the desk that are supposed to be confidential, alerting her to the possibility of impropriety or professional laxity.

         Make the settings of your fiction more than just places to be. Make them repositories of numerous details that help to tell your story and define your characters. A very good way to do this is to look for microcosms--little worlds--in your settings, scene by scene and in the world as a whole. When you do this, you'll come closer to being able to convey the settings--and the treasure trove of details they contain--to your reader.

         The times and places in our fiction must be sufficiently credible to make your readers believe they can exist (even in impossible places), and they must be sufficiently delivered to make the readers believe they do exist in the context of your plot. Look for ways to incorporate the larger view (by offering a bird's eye view) and such things as weather and the landscape. Good settings are composed of many details, and good fiction is comprised of nicely crafted settings.

Exercises and Prompts

1. Develop a setting for the interview situation discussed above. Choose characters you feel comfortable writing about, and place them in a setting with which you are actually familiar. Add all the details necessary to create a great setting for your short plot line.

2. Using one of your old manuscripts, find places you can go into more detail about weather conditions and geography. You'll be surprised how much more clearly your setting will emerge when your reader is aware of these things.

3. Take down your world atlas and start flipping through the pages. Look specifically at the shapes of states, nations, and continents. Now, determine how you might go about describing those shapes for your readers. Use literary techniques, if you can, to compare the shapes to familiar objects. Every place can look like something, and your comparison. might be a good way to establish your setting. Pick a couple of places, and write a paragraph or two in which you bring those places more clearly into your readers' minds.

When you have created an item or two for this month's workshop, please share your work with others by posting it, or a link to it, in our Ultimate Writer's Workshop Forum. We can often learn tricks and experience "ah-ha" realizations by comparing our own work with what others have done on the same topic.

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