Three Sneaky Tricks to Slide in Settings

You can’t fly without solid ground beneath you. Nope. You can’t. You can’t get momentum. There’s no light, no wind. Just an empty void.

And by “fly,” I mean write, of course.

I also mean imagine. And most of all, I mean telepathically commune with whoever reads your words. No one is going to be able to follow your plot if your story isn’t grounded in a believable setting. They’ll be too distracted, trying to figure out if the story is unfolding in a greasy spoon or a daycare or a very small hole in the ground.

But the devil of it is, nobody likes reading huge tracts of expository land. Well, a few people do, but honestly, exposition-lovers are an anomaly. Personally, I hate writing setting via exposition and I double-hate reading it. So, here are my tricks to slide in setting, and yes, they are all interrelated.

Work in setting through dialogue.

“Scalpel,” said Dr. Singh.

Where are we? Probably an operating room. A BIG WARNING ABOUT THIS TRICK- do NOT have your characters say things like, “Wow it’s a beautiful day here in sunny Tampa, isn’t it Sybil?” People don’t talk like television announcers. Setting via dialogue should only happen through dialogue that is contextually related to the plot.

Work in setting through detail.

I picked the scalpel up off the grass, wiped the edge with a leaf, and handed it to him.

Oh God, we’re not in an operating room. We’re outside? Cleaning surgical equipment with LEAVES? Is this guy really a doctor? (Note: go back and change Dr. to Doc and you’ve got yourself a medic, who would most definitely be using a scalpel outside.)

Show setting through the character’s eyes.

I held my breath, tasting the sweat on my lips, as Dr. Singh sliced into the spore-burrow on Rachel’s forearm. Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Rachel gasped, but held steady as the doctor dug. Blessed art thou among women. The hot evening wind began to rise, rippling the grass around us, making tiny whips of my hair. The Doctor paused, and I shifted around so that he could work in the lee of my body. He nodded once, grunted and dug his fingernails into the bleeding flesh. And blessed is the fruit-

“Ha,” said the doctor, plucking out the spore. He flung it down and I watched it quiver in the double-dusk as it expired, my prayer answered and broken by the sight of it. A pack of kraggen coughed in the distance, attracted, no doubt, by the scent of Rachel’s blood on the wind.

God I hate Capra-9.

Well now we know, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re on Capra-9, so it’s probably the future. We’re outside. It’s evening. It’s hot. And it’s hostile.

If you must have pure exposition to round out your setting, and you probably will, keep it to a minimum. Any pure exposition you do write ought to be as clean and graceful as you can make it, and if it is coming from a view-point character, it should be infused with their personality. My protagonist hates the setting he/she is in, so he/she probably has lots to say about it. In this scene I would do that and then I would pull out of his/her head and back into the moment, taking care to provide more sensory details- colors, sounds, scents, sensations, general temperature, light source and quality. I’d definitely fiddle and tweak with the inner-thought to outer-action ratio so as not to slow the scene down too much. I might even chose to hold off on the inner-thought bits until later. Whatever works best for the flow of the story.

And there you are, three sneaky tricks that gives the reader gets all the setting they need without forcing them to wallow through a turgid block of text. If you’ve got any tricks of your own, please share ’em in the comments.