Elements: How I Approach Setting

I feel like I’ve crossed another milestone. I’ve had a realization recently about setting, which writing instructors will tell you is one of the key elements of fiction, along with characters and plot, but which I see a little differently.

I’m a little skeptical, by the way, that one can learn how to write from a book. I won’t say it’s not possible, because anything is possible, but I’m skeptical that what comes out of such a process will ever be, except by chance, more than a very sophisticated paint-by-numbers.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with paint-by-numbers, or coloring books for that matter, and I suspect someone somewhere has turned both into genuine art, but if so, it wasn’t because they used the right brush and stayed inside the lines. Rules in art are a bit like the instruction manual to a television: it tells you how to operate the device but not how to get anything out of it, where that last bit is all that really matters.

There’s a point in A Symphony in Green, my latest release, where the central protagonist speaks to this, only he’s talking about magic rather than writing. (Same difference.) He’s sitting on the ground in a little forest with the narrator of the story, a 10-year-old boy.

“There are people in the world who don’t believe in that. They don’t believe in anything that won’t return a particle, as if we could ever hold the best of life in our hands. Like humor. Do you know what that is?”

I nodded again, but I wasn’t sure.

“It’s the good feeling you get when you hear a funny joke. It’s what shakes your throat and pulls a laugh from your belly. You can stop yourself from laughing, but the greater the humor, the greater the effort to resist. You have to push back against something. Sometimes very hard.

“The thing you’re pushing against, that’s humor. It can be felt. But like love, it can’t be captured or weighed or smelted into hate.

“And just like love, our capacity for it is innate, but our expression of it has to be learned. Has anyone ever tried to explain a joke to you?”

I nodded. “My friend Chelsea did once. At my old school.” I realized then that I missed my friend Chelsea, and that I had almost forgot about her. I wondered if eventually I would forget her completely. Would she still be real? Then I thought about my mom.

“Was it funny? When she explained it?”

I shook my head.

“It loses something, doesn’t it?”

“The humor goes away?”

“Magic is like that. It can’t be memorized. Or learned. It has to be understood. Felt. Inside.” He put his fingertips to his heart. “Like humor. It can’t be explained. You can’t instruct someone in it. Just as an explained joke produces no humor, a dissected spell is a lifeless thing. Stillborn. That’s why no one ever learns magic from a book—as if you could compose a master symphony simply by reading a history of music. It’s why magicians always sound so hopelessly obscure. They can never get at their subject directly. They can only point to it. It’s why people who don’t know magic can walk through the world and not see any of it. Even though, like humor and love and all the rest, it’s all around them. All the time.”

We learn art by making it. And we feel our way through. (And there’s art in all kinds of things, from tending a garden to scientific research.) This is why feedback is so important. It’s the only way to close the loop.

I’ve said before that writing FANTASMAGORIA, my first book, taught me how to plot, and not surprisingly most of the compliments I’ve received on it are about the plot — specifically, how original and unexpected it is. It’s also no accident I learned that first. I enjoy plot. Some people care less about it than character. In fact, in the world of publishing, I suspect I’m actually in the minority. But I like things to happen first — BOOM — especially when those things also develop the characters, which is what I try to do.

I didn’t really understand characterization until THE MINUS FACTION. (There aren’t really any teary moments in FANTASMAGORIA, nor did I ever intend there to be.) As I started my second book, I knew where my growth areas were. I mentioned at the time that I was going to try something different: skip plot and start with characters. And so I did. I even spent a fair amount of money to have them illustrated before I had a story! (Which seems crazy now.)

I had not, until A Symphony in Green, given nearly as much thought to setting as to those other two. That’s not to say the settings in my earlier works have been drab — just appropriate. FANTASMAGORIA takes place in a Vegas-like pleasure city on an island that floats naturally around a deep inland sea. THE MINUS FACTION has a contemporary (or near-future) international setting, most recently New York amid a blackout of the entire metropolitan area.

My settings have served the story, but I didn’t really approach them as I should, which is to say not haphazardly and not as a separate element, but as another character. Because that’s what setting really is. It’s another character. And all the guidelines I use for creating characters — that they should be unusual, outrageous even, and have deep histories and intentions and motivations — also apply.

For example, I think the setting should have a purpose, something it wants to bring about, although that need not relate to the plot. (In fact, it’s probably more interesting if it doesn’t.) Going in, I should have an immediate sense of whether the setting will hinder the protagonists, help them, or remain neutral, the same as any other character, and I should introduce it as such.

Take the 10-year-old narrator’s new house in A Symphony in Green. It is, at least during the events of the story, frozen in half-renovation. The family has only recently moved in, and the floors aren’t finished. The yard is torn up on one side. The walls are exposed in places. It’s a mess, barely livable even. But it has potential, and so it’s a reflection of the family that occupies it, a family being rebuilt after separation and impending divorce.

Importantly, the house also backs to the hollow — a remaindered piece of land, a never-to-be-developed dead patch between the neighborhood, a shopping center, and the freeway — where the boy’s secret is hiding. Thus, the house is, by its placement, sort of blocking what’s back there just as the boy’s father won’t acknowledge the strange happenings in his son’s life.

Now, I expect the results of my revelation will be transparent to the reader, but for me it’s a big change — to my process, to how I approach a blank page. I’m now crafting histories for major scene settings and treating them as if they were alive. In each case, I’m starting with:

Something interesting happened here. What?