Don't Shake the Flask

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Tag: setting

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 2

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous post: Part 1

I attended the Friday opening ceremonies but was mostly puzzled. I think there were a lot of inside jokes that I simply did not get.


(Guests of Honor, left to right: George R. R. Martin, Kenneth Hite, Rob Carlos)

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Eventually, I made my way to the “Throne Room”, a.k.a. the hotel lobby where the con organizers had placed the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, to see the evening panel “The Effect of Setting on Story.” The panelists were Peter Orullian, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Eldon Thompson, and J.A. Pitts as the moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)

JP: How important is setting? In The Maltese Falcon, the setting is important because the city is used as a character.

PO: In Lord of the Flies the setting works metaphorically as the characters move toward the wild state. James Lee Burke uses lush southern settings, creating feelings of lushness and sweltering heat which works well with mystery and convoluted plot twists. It’s also instructive to look outside of genre.

JR: Setting can be a character and should be developed with the same level of thought. In John Steinbeck’s work, the setting influences the protagonists and story arc. There is one school of criticism, eco-criticism, where they look at setting in particular. Tolkien personified parts of the setting, such as Moria.

ET: Setting can set the tone of the story and the emotional resonance. The setting can create conflict where conflict is lacking. George Lucas does this in Empire Strikes Back where the characters struggle against a frozen world. You can create more drama with a dynamic setting.

JP: In modern and urban fantasy, the reader is hooked with the familiar before introduced to the fantastic. Is it harder or easier to do familiar or non-familiar settings?

PO: You can use shorthand in a familiar world. If you say “lobby”, everyone already knows what a lobby is. If you’re doing a secondary world, you need detail to ground you in the new world. Detail makes it seem concrete and gives flavor to the story.

JR: Doing a secondary world is easier because you’re making it up and no one will ding you on the mistakes.

ET: It depends on what you want to do. Get the details right if it’s in the real world. If you make it up, stay consistent or it will kick the reader out of the story.

JP: For example, get a calendar so you know the phases of the moon. Always have internal consistency and don’t change the rules in the middle unless you have a good explanation. Let the reader fill in the details. Can you overdo detail?

ET: Yes. Don’t bore the reader.

JR: You want enough detail to feel real but not to put the readers to sleep. For instance, you can add detail by being specific, like “redwood tree”, or slip in bits and pieces in the narrative. Don’t write whole paragraphs of detail.

PO: In Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons set his story in the South, but he’s never been there. But he saw pictures and read about it. He researches by “immersion reading.” So you can fake it. One specific detail can go far to establish your credibility.

JR: If you’re not using specific words, you’re also using weasel words.

JP: What about other sensory settings? In Alyx Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, time flows differently so setting changes. In other books, authors use smell.

ET: The visual sense is overused (except in film where it’s limited to the visual). Show the way someone walks. Smell is a sense that’s underutilized, so it will stand out. The best sensory writing comes from poetry which is used for maximum impact.

AQ: In radio drama, how is sound used as a setting?

JP: Sounds are incredibly important since there is no visual.

PO: You need texture, audio cues. Smell can be typical. Go into a bar and listen to how people talk and other sounds. How writers write dialogue is not how we speak. Don’t neglect the other senses but also don’t use all the senses at the same time.

JR: Touch is important, especially if you have a character who is working with his hands.

AQ: If something has a specific name in a secondary world but also has an ordinary name in the real world, how do you balance this with setting?

PO: You need balance. Words have different connotations. But it’s a writer’s choice.

ET: You have to have something to ground the reader first.

PO: You can contextualize. For example, Patrick Rothfuss includes invention with clarity.

ET: And in George Martin’s work, it’s twisted just enought that it doesn’t seem anachronistic.

AQ: Can you legally write about a business?

JP: If it’s generic, such as a character going into Starbucks to get coffee, it’s okay. But if you’re saying how bad it is, it’s libel.

AQ: What about real people?

JP: If the person is dead, like Abraham Lincoln, that’s okay. But if the person is alive, that can also be libel. If you’re worried about it, just change the name.

PO: If you’re worried about it, you should get books about copyright and libel. Writers don’t do enough thinking about setting as metaphor. For example, the hollow man living in a wasteland. Use the setting as a macrocosm of the theme. Writers used to do this more. Also what about topography–who or why do people live there?

JR: In one of my books, I have the “dry line” where trees physically separate countries.

JP: For anyone under thirty, they grew up on TV and became lazy with consumption. It’s too fast. You need to immerse yourself in books and take time to delve into detail.

JR: Steinbeck had working journals which were very descriptive. For instance, in his journal for East of Eden, he consciously uses outdoor settings for foreshadowing.

PO: In Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the setting mirrors the darkness of the main character.

AQ: With all the detail, how do you keep the story moving?

JP: You need to keep a balance. You can get a lot of imagery with a few words. Use three sentences rather than several pages.

PO: Not all writers are good at everything. Your novel can still be good if you’re good at things other than detail.

AQ: Can people see the same setting in different ways?

ET: Setting is the crucible for things to happen. You need to build it to force the character to grow. An example is Frodo’s journey in Lord of the Rings.

JP: Setting enables you to show external turmoil to indicate internal turmoil. Sam (from LOTR) had a totally different view point.

PO: Characters show what’s happening internally by how they view things.

ET: This is not how the author sees things.

AQ: Why do some authors, such as Anne McCaffrey, have other worlds but only use the background in side stories?

JP: That’s doing your homework but not showing it in the main story. Another example is The Silmarillion.

PO: However, there are exceptions. There are some writers who are so good you don’t mind reading pages of detail. These are suggestions, not rules.

AQ: How do you put alternate languages in context?

JP: Just don’t bore me. No apostrophes. Don’t drag the reader out of the story. Alternate languages should be used effectively.

JR: One thing that drags me out of a fantasy story is when they use modern day names.

PO: For invented languages, you can create a few words. It’s not necessary to create an entire dictionary. Be thoughtful about it, especially if it has a specific meaning.

AQ: What about creating naming languages like Tolkien?

JP: Tolkien’s names came from Welsh and mythology.

ET: The key thing is consistency. If you use a name with a hard “C”, don’t just use a “K” in the next name.

JP: If you know someone who knows another language, have them check it.

AQ: In Firefly, they used Chinese. In LOTR, Germanic dialects were used for the dwarves.

PO: Consistency and balance is good.

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Stay tuned for Part 3, one of the Saturday morning sessions.

The Aesthetics of Setting

One characteristic of a great story is a memorable setting.  It isn’t required, of course, for a story to have any sort of setting at all–especially if your aim with the story is to focus on the characters rather than the background–but a setting is definitely something that helps one become engrossed in the story.  Sometimes the setting itself can become a character, especially if the plot is basically a man versus nature story.  And even if it isn’t nowhere near the status of character, setting has an indelible influence on characterization by challenging the actions and reactions of the other characters.  Setting dictates the aesthetics and style of how the story is told.  At the very least, it helps ground the reader into the where of the story–which is not the where of the reader’s location.

The example that comes to mind is not surprisingly one of my favorite books, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.  The heroine finds herself out in the middle of nowhere in a colonial outpost, a fish out of water in a hot, desert setting.  The setting itself–implicitly savage and desolate–allows the rest of the story to flow.  It seems perfectly natural, then, that a barbarian king would kidnap her in the middle of the night, that she would sleep in tents and wear flowing garb, that she would fight with swords rather than pistols.

So I’ve been thinking about setting in regards to my upcoming Nanowrimo project.  But, you may say, you’re essentially doing space opera.  There will be spaceships and ray guns and alien parasites bursting out of people’s stomachs.  Who cares about the setting when you need to pay attention to the plot and the science?  Sure, the plot and the science are important–but those two things are intertwined with the setting whether I like it or not.  And no one is going to care about the plot and the science if I can’t even getting the setting right.

Spaceships and ray guns, in of themselves, are merely tropes and clichés in the space opera genre.  In order to incorporate them into the setting without being lazy about it, these items need to be designed with a certain aesthetic.  It’s kind of like in Star Trek when the characters are aboard different vessels.  There’s different design aesthetics which let you know that yes, a Federation ship is not the same as a Klingon ship and also that both of those aren’t a Borg cube.  I guess my aim for the setting in pretty much any of my stories, regardless of genre, is to depict it in such a way that it seems real in an almost tactile way.  I read about a lot of writers saying that they see their stories like a movie in their head.  It’s not like that for me.  And even if it was, I’m not sure that I would even choose to write it that way.  I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, even if I enjoy a movie, there’s a detachment about it because I’m watching, not doing.  Yes, you the reader can still be the observer–but it’s the difference between sitting comfortably on the couch in front of a screen and sitting outside on the sidelines while the sun is beating down on you and being able to just reach out and touch what’s going on in front of you.

The reason why I think I can get away with contemplating aesthetic for a sci-fi novel, rather than designing something that could realistically exist in the future, is that my focus is not on the technology*.  Even though on the face of it the whole premise sounds like an adventure (documentary team travels the galaxy to find alien foods!), I view sci-fi as a reflection of contemporary society rather than what it will really be in the future**.  I might end up exploring themes of priviledged excess, jadedness and ennui due to overstimulation, and self-destruction from an obsession with materialism.  Pretty heavy stuff to be thinking about–and I might not even get to it during November.  But one thing I think will help me weave these themes into the narrative is the setting aesthetic.

So what sort of aesthetic am I going to use?  Well, think of the 1970s western lifestyle and its design aesthetic (or lack thereof).  Now put that into space. Yep. Put on your shades cause there’s going to be sparkly uniforms, mustachioed aliens, shag-carpeted captain’s chairs, and Vogon-grade disco dancing for good measure.

*There’s a difference between technology and science.  I don’t care so much about the whiz-bang gadgets of technology.  But whether anything is actually scientifically plausible?  Yes, that would get the scrutiny from me.
**I suspect the future will be at the same time as banal as today and something so different that we cannot even yet imagine.