Wednesday, June 07, 2017

How Many Settings Should a Novel Have?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We often talk about “the setting” in a novel, but rarely does a story take place in one place. Characters change locations, even if they’re all rooms in a single house. Plenty of novels travel around the globe or even around the universe, and some even cross dimensions.

With all this running around, is it possible to have too many settings in a novel?

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to clarify what we mean when we say “setting.” Is it:
  • The overall world or era where the novel takes place, such as Mars or 18th Century London?
  • The city or state of the story, such as Florida or New Orleans?
  • The specific location on a scene by scene basis, such as the office, the parking lot outside the bar, or the bad guy’s lair?
To me, “setting” has multiple layers. Every scene has a setting and those settings exist in a larger story world. That story world might be a fantasy land or it might take place in the real world. For example, my story world might be Florida (or more specifically, Miami) but the scenes take place in various locations within Miami and Florida. If you asked me where the book was set, I’d say either Florida or Miami.

But in reality, it’s the individual locations that truly make up the setting of the novel. It’s the old house on the ocean with the jalousie windows, the neon lights of South Beach, the park with all the iguanas and old Cuban men playing dominos. Simply saying “Florida” doesn’t convey the setting. “Miami” gets a little closer, but there are a lot of aspects to Miami. It isn’t until we get down to the scene level that our setting truly comes to life.

(Here's more on the difference between setting and world building)

So if we take all this into account, how many settings should a novel have?

As many as it needs.

Odds are a novel is going to have multiple locations in it, even if the story world is small. In the manuscript I just finished, for example, my protagonist visits three cities, and each city has scenes taking place in multiple locations. City A has six, varying from individual apartments to parking lots. City B has ten. City C has seven. That’s a lot of locations (And I bet I missed a few), but my protagonist is moving around a lot as she solves her problem. If I really wanted to get picky, some of those locations are really places with multiple rooms—so one “location” has scenes that take place in different areas of that location. If I treated my novel like a movie, I bet I have at least thirty different “sets” where events occur.

Is thirty too many?

I don’t think so (and neither did any of my beta readers), because my protagonist has very good reasons to visit every single one of those locations. They work with the plot and provide the necessary backdrop for the story.

(Here’s more on using setting to help build your world)

Let’s compare this to a prior manuscript of mine—which had two cities and far fewer locations within those cities. Nearly all of my beta readers felt there was too much running around and no one thought I needed the second city at all. Those locations didn’t serve the story and just muddied up the plot.

Why did one work and the other didn’t?

One book’s settings supported the protagonist’s goals and provided clues and context for the plot, story, and character arc. The other book took readers to places they didn’t care about going to, because they didn’t really get why the protagonist went there in the first place.

I think that’s the key when deciding on settings and where your scenes take place—how much will your readers want to go to those places? It’s not the number of settings that matter, but what the setting brings to the story.

This holds true for cities, planets, or rooms. If a protagonist walks through five different rooms in her house while having a phone conversation, and each room is described in detail even though it has no bearing on the character’s goal or the scene, readers are probably going to want that character to sit down and stop moving around. The setting adds nothing to the story.

But a story can move all over the place if readers are eager to see what happens when they get there. The setting offers a chance to discover new information and more clues to the plot puzzle together. The setting is an opportunity to show readers something about the story, be that a clue, a plot point, a bit of characterization, some foreshadowing, or any number of the things that can happen in a scene.

(Here’s more on what goes into a scene)

If you’re unsure if you have too many settings, ask what those settings bring to your story—if you can switch the location of a scene and nothing changes but where it happens, that’s a red flag that the setting might not be pulling its weight. But if going there means something and does more than just provide a place for the scene to unfold, you’re probably fine.

How do you define “setting?” How many settings does your WIP have?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Well, thanks! I hadn't been thinking of settings as layered. (I am one of those readers who skip descriptions of settings) even though I do expect to at least know where I am in a story. I try to write setting enough...usually in the 1st edit, because I tend to leave setting out in the first draft. My WIP has one world/country, 6 cities and a couple small towns, and 2-3 building settings per town. I tend to try to keep numbers below 7 (the number of things/people/etc., I learned in art, an average person can keep track of at once. Although, I also tend to get carried away with probably too many characters.)

    1. I think setting is one of those things we take for granted. When we write, we know where our characters are, so we see it in our minds. When we read, we make it up, or we don't care as long as we're not confused. But that middle ground where we need to know and don't can really trip us up. It can be hard to find that balance, especially is setting isn't our thing (I'm with you on this one).