Setting Expectations

alien landscapeThe majority of what I read and write is science fiction or fantasy. My expectation is that these stories will be set either in a truly alien environment or in our world but with a different set of rules or technologies.  The amount of time and effort the author needs to spend describing the world depends on that decision: is it on Earth as we know it, or is it somewhere else?  Too often, I’ll pick up a book or story which advertises itself as being set on a planet other than Earth or in a spaceship or in the molten inner core of the planet and as I read, it feels like I’m just down the street or perhaps right in the middle of Central Park (though, admittedly, anything in New York City could be considered to be another world). Sometimes this may be by design — the author doesn’t want the story or its characters to be bogged down by or driven by the environment, or the author may have defined it away by allowing the characters to transform the alien environment into something more comfortable and familiar to both the characters and the readers. But sometimes it is evident that the author didn’t care about the setting, that he or she just wanted to write a story set “on another planet”.

My opinion is: if an alien or fictional landscape is unimportant then why would the story be set in an alien or fictional environment?  Just set it on Earth, in downtown Anywheresville and tell the story. But if the story is to be set in an alien or fictional environment, it needs to be described. For my stories, I will spend a fair bit of time (words) describing the landscape, the weather and the general environment in which the story is taking place.  The goal of this is to give the reader an understanding of what the characters are seeing and experiencing as they go about their days.  Given how often I read books that do not go into much detail about the environments, I often wonder if doing this is merely a distraction to the reader and a waste of precious time and word count within the story.  There have been times when this back-and-forth battle in my brain has led me to spend hours writing paragraph after paragraph describing the unique aspects of the terrain, only to later cut it on the first round of editing.

Does that mean I wasted all that time?

While the majority of those descriptive words may ultimately settle silently on the cutting-room floor during the first edits because they are deemed to be useless for readers, I would argue that there is a lot of benefit to me as the author in writing them.  By spending the time to describe and fill in the landscape, I become more familiar with it, more comfortable with it, and more attuned to how it can, should and will interact with the characters.  Often, if I find that the setting I’ve described is too familiar, it leads me to question whether or not I’ve actually gotten it right.  Living quarters on a deep space starship should not feel like your average living room.  Growing vegetables on Mars should not require exactly the same effort, tools or experience and should not result in exactly the same flavors, shapes, sizes and colors of those vegetables as what we’d see on Earth. I feel it would be unreasonable to expect that we humans could just will the Martian soil to grow Earth vegetables, or that life on a spaceship would be as comfortable as life in Suburbia, no matter how much we might want to say that science and technology advanced enough to make it so.

The bottom line for me is that if I am writing a story set in an alien or fictional world, the setting should be alien.  If my characters are humans from Earth, it should be something they at least notice, if not something they struggle to adapt to.  A second generation of humans who were born in that environment may not think of it as a big deal, but settlers would certainly notice.  Think about moving from one town, state or country to another here on Earth.  Even though you may still have a car and a house and the same clothing, there is still an adjustment period and an effort to adapt to the new environment, new laws, new food choices, new weather patterns.  We authors need to understand how the new environment impacts our characters. We need to understand how the characters react and respond to it.  And we need to describe for the readers — and ourselves — the parts of that environment which make the world different from our own.  Whether it is strange technology or topology, when I go back and edit I look for the things which make the environment unique and I try to focus the descriptive text on those aspects and on how those unique aspects impact the characters.  In my opinion, it makes the story richer, makes the characters more realistic and makes the setting important to the story and not just an afterthought.

What do you think? Whatever type of writing you do, how much time do you spend defining and describing the world in which the story takes place and how do you find ways to balance the description of the environment with the interaction between it and the characters?

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3 thoughts on “Setting Expectations

  1. I think just as writers have different preferences, so do readers. Personally, when I am reading a novel, I tend to focus and get absorbed by dialogue and plot development rather than setting. With that being said, setting is certainly important to me. Inevitably, the author of a good novel will paint a picture in my mind of the setting with utter clarity (without making me feel like I am slogging through mud to paint that picture). So, my long-winded answer from the perspective of a reader is that characters, plot, and setting are all vitally important. For some readers, we want to digest every nook and cranny of a setting. For others, we want it to be just as clear, but performed in the subconscious, if you will.

    For me, one of the challenges in describing an alien world is being consistent. When we write about a story on Earth, it is easy to remain consistent because we live here. It is a part of who we are. It becomes natural for our subconscious to handle the nuances of a familiar habitat. When we begin writing entire chapters about a planet or setting that is not like our own, it seems it would become increasingly more difficult to keep things straight (and consistent) because it goes against our natural thought processes.

    But, then again, I have never written science fiction or fantasy, so maybe this is easier to manage than I am making it out to be 😉

  2. There are those brilliant writers who establish a place with just one or two perfect descriptions that stay with the reader throughout reading the story.

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