Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

This is the first of three posts on setting.

Remember that old TV show, “Lost In Space”? Neither do I, really, but that’s OK. The title’s the important thing. I used to be in the Air Force, and there was a joke among us aviators that navigators were members of the Fugawi Tribe. (This was true for Naval aviators, too.)

“Why is that?” you ask.

“Because,” I reply, “you could often find them huddled over their paper charts (this is back in the day—today they huddle over GPS displays, mostly) with their compasses and protractors and special rulers and rotary slide rules. If you bent close and listened carefully, you could hear them muttering strange incantations and imprecations, in particular, ‘Where the fugawi?’”[1]

Or so I’m told.

In any case, something an author never wants to do is initiate their reader into the Fugawi Tribe. A reader who doesn’t know where he is—or where the characters are—isn’t going to be a happy reader. He doesn’t want to be lost in space…or time (which causes me to flash on another 1960s TV show: “It’s About Time,” whose theme song began with the lines, “It’s about time, it’s about space, / About two men in the strangest place…”).

TV and movies (and all the visual media) have a built-in advantage over printed fiction and non-fiction stories because they show the viewer, right up front and right away, where and when the story is taking place. They can’t help but do it.

It’s another matter in written fiction.  The author has to make a conscious effort to present that information to the reader. And she needs to do it quickly and in every scene. Well, maybe not every scene, but the exceptions are situations like where the story is quick-cutting between sets of point-of-view characters who are all in the same place. Once their position in the setting is established, so long as they don’t move or leave, those quick cuts back to them don’t need to reestablish the characters’ location. The reader will assume they’ve stayed where they were.

One of the members of my writers’ group demands to know where the scene is set immediately, right from the very first line. OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but her point is pretty much on target. Readers are usually willing wait a paragraph or two to find out where a scene is set, but after that they start to feel lost in space.

The solution, of course, is straight-forward: provide enough detail early enough in the scene or story to place the characters in time and space. At the beginning of the piece, the time-setting needs to be broad-scale: is it set in ancient Rome, the 1880s, the modern day, or some time in the distant future? This can be done many ways. Here are just a few:

  • By explicit statement: “By 1885, Dodge City…”;
  • By mentioning characters unique to the time: “Emperor Diocletian…”;
  • By mentioning a technology or using a term that is clearly identified with a period: “…the horseless carriage sputtered down the street…”;
  • By mentioning a custom, a style of dress, a building or event new or specific to that time and place, etc.

Later on, the details may be fewer and more specific, if the new setting remains within that original context. If it changes, of course, then the writer needs to provide more information.

Note that future settings can be tricky: it’s impossible to predict with confidence what a future setting will “really” look like and the farther into the future a story is, the worse the problem is. Science fiction writers get past this by establishing a futuristic setting and not worrying about the exact year in most cases. My own work-in-progress is set in the near future—2035-ish—which is actually harder than if I’d set it farther out, because we can take some educated guesses at what 2035-ish technology and living conditions might look like. It’s easy for a reader to disagree with my prediction–and be able to support that disagreement.

Some kinds of fantasy have their own unique situation when it comes to time: depending on the story, the setting may be completely divorced from the Earth we know and from its historical timeline. So while a sword-and-sorcery fantasy may be set in a place that looks like Medieval Europe, it may not be—Europe or Medieval. The good news is that fantasy readers understand this and are quite happy to go along without knowing “when in the course of human events” the story occurs.

Note, too, that time is inseparable from place, but place, while almost invariably intertwined with a time, can, in the hands of a skilled writer, transcend time or be used to show a lack of change over time, but that’s a topic for another day.

While it’s important to set characters in their time and place in each scene, it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. I’ll write about that in Part 20 in a few weeks.

One final item. Super-agent Donald Maass, in his book The Breakout Novelist, says this about setting:

“Description [of setting] itself does nothing to create tension; tension comes only from within the people in the landscape. A house is just a house until it is occupied by people with problems.”

This time the questions for you to ask yourself as a reviewer of someone’s work are pretty straightforward:

  • Does the author establish the time and place of the scene or story at all?
  • Does she establish the time and place of the scene or story quickly enough that I don’t wonder when or where it’s taking place?
    • If the time or place is established too late, where in the scene or story would be a better place for it, and why?
  • When she attempts to establish the time and place, are both clear to me, or am I confused by one or both?
    • If I’m confused, why, and what could she do to make this information clearer?

In the next two posts, I’ll talk about providing too little information, or too much, about the setting of a scene or story.

For now, what else do you look for when evaluating whether an author has established the time and place of a scene or story quickly and clearly enough?

[1] Translation: “Where the fuck are we?” You figured that out on your own, didn’t you?