Plan your setting

City plan, generated by Probable Train

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This is the second of four posts I am sharing in the lead up to National Novel Writing Month (aka “NaNoWriMo”). Each Tuesday, I will have another few thoughts to share on how to get the most useful story out of your mad dash toward the pinnacle of 50,000 words. These posts will share tips and offer recommendations from my many years as a developmental editor and writing instructor to shape your ideas into something that doesn’t take the six months to a year next year to shape into something publishable. it is my hope that this “planning” is also useful to pantsers – giving your subconscious food for thought before you dive in.

Last week I talked about developing a (loose) plot plan. This week, we’re going to discuss the places of your story. In considering when (past, present, future) and where (in the world or universe) your plot happens, you will develop opportunities for more plot points.

Whether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, contemporary or historical fiction, storytelling is about life. Consider this: What can or can’t happen because of where or when a character lives?

Setting as character (obstacle or opportunity)

Setting for stories provides context for the characters’ actions. Finding a place to stay is a very different process in a rural area than in a city. When a character enters a place of worship there are expectations for behavior, prayers, and rhythms and patterns for movement. When a character enters a board room, they are expected to do a certain thing, behave a certain way, consider certain issues in a certain order. People have roles when they enter a space. What is your character’s role in the spaces they will inhabit? Even if your character is going to upset the status quo, knowing what the status quo is expected to be allows you to describe best how they upset it.

Premise: You get the aghast face of the chairman of the board when a mousy-looking woman enters and demands they stop their factory runoff from poisoning the river ecosystem. “You’re out of order, madam, that issue is not on today’s agenda.” “Well, I’m putting it on today’s agenda,” she says, pulling out a knife and putting it to his throat. “You got a problem with that?” she asks the rest of the now wide-eyed men staring at her from down the long table.

You could set that moment in another place (have her attack the chairman when he’s getting in his car in the garage, for example), but will the impact be the same?

So you need to decide on the following things about your setting:

  • physical attributes (houses, businesses, and other structures the characters will walk around/through)
  • manners, customs (both societal and situational)
  • climate and weather (because these will affect clothing choices)

Generate as much of these through brainstorming as possible. If necessary, look back at your previous planning and consider what settings would best provide context for presenting a particular character’s goal, motivation, or conflict.

Gather (and write descriptions for) images that inspire your setting

You want a particular look for the old manse on the hill where the main character’s uncle lives? You should find a picture – or better yet, find a picture AND a written description. You can post it in your writing space when you’re working on the scene during November. But trust me, those “catalog” descriptions are very useful if you’re not an expert on architecture or textiles and don’t know damask from velour, then find descriptions of these things not just images.

Advice for including setting when you’re writing during NaNoWriMo

You don’t have time to “finesse” a lot of description when you’re trying to slam out 1,667 words a day to reach a 50k goal for NaNoWriMo. Part of your words do need to be setting. Use the screenwriter’s method though, and describe the physical space at the start of each scene, and each time a character enters a new space with the parenthetical “(setting)”. Then write the rest of the scene’s action and dialogue as vividly as possible.

You can always search to find “(setting)” and trim the paragraphs of setting back, scattering the most pertinent details throughout the scene when you’re editing in January (from draft to done calendar for writers). But if you don’t take the time to write the words describing the scene and only use your pictorial inspirations, you will struggle unnecessarily to reach 50k. Visuals are all well and good for inspiration – but they are no substitute for actual descriptive words.

A picture may be “worth a thousand words” but NaNoWriMo’s counter only counts words. You can’t include pictures in your verification file.

Hit comment and leave me your thoughts. Then come back next week for another think-piece about writing your way to a successful 50k.

~ Lara

A DOCX (Microsoft Word) version of this file will be included in the full packet available on the last of these four posts. Subscribe to my blog to be alerted when new posts are published. ~ LZ

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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