Bickham on Setting


Here’s a couple of tricks taught by my strange hero Jack Bickham in his book Setting.  I don’t recommend Setting, because it spends most of its time telling you obvious things like “Don’t set your story in the old west if you want to talk about urban slums.” But it gives a few specific techniques, the kind Bickham excels at and great writers never mention because they are too pedestrian and make writing sound like bricklaying.  I haven’t tried these myself, but they sound reasonable.

You can only change so much at one time

Specifically, when you change from the point of view (POV) of one character, back to the POV of an earlier character in a place we’ve already seen, do not describe anything in the earlier setting that we haven’t seen before until the reader is re-oriented. Specifically mention things that the reader has already seen, to help them figure out the transition. If you really want to talk immediately about the clock tower when you switch back to an earlier setting, mention that tower in the previous scene in that setting.

This doesn’t apply only when changing POV. Any time that so much is happening that the reader is in danger of becoming disoriented, reduce the confusion by turning new things into old  things, by planting references to them in earlier scenes.  That includes references to the setting. Recently I read a book the author began with two long action scenes [1]. In the second scene, the protagonist walked through a strange setting to meet a villain, then ran back out the way she came in while fighting. I could have visualized the fight more clearly if the author had described on the character’s way in everything that the character saw on her way out, because the fight on her way out was fast and confusing.

Casting against setting requires using stereotypes

Bickham says that fish-out-of-water characters, like Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid or Dr. Fleishman in Northern Exposure, must begin as stereotypes of people from their original setting. If your point is to show how the character’s background clashes with their present circumstances, making a realistically complex character who does not exactly fit the expectations of their background blurs the distinction between adjustments the character makes to the new setting, and the character’s original idiosyncrasies.

[1] Don’t do that.


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