Eaten by Setting

Are you writing in a genre that requires considerable time and attention lavished on the setting? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, western, and historical fiction come immediately to mind. And although many thrillers rely heavily on action, their sometimes-exotic locales can require author research.

All that’s fine. In some stories, setting is so important it can be called a character.

When an author establishes a vivid sense of place or locale it enhances the reading experience. I love the research. I love inserting those sparkling jewels of information or detail that can make the setting come alive for me as well as my readers.

However, if unchecked, setting can swell into a monster that engulfs the writing project.

It can so absorb writer attention that the actual writing of story is forgotten or set aside in favor of digging out more research, more details, more obscure pieces of information, more maps, more, more, more!

It can mesmerize writers into abandoning their plot outline. Instead, they change portions of their story to accommodate a fabulous setting that simply has to be crammed into the plot — whether it belongs or not.

And it can grow out of proportion, taking prominence in a story instead of the characters and plot.

These are all danger signals that a careful writer should heed. You don’t have to kill the setting. You don’t have to cut it all away. Just make sure it’s part of the backdrop where it belongs, secondary to the plot action and protagonist.

Let’s compare setting to the morning glory vine. The flowers that bloom all summer, every morning, despite heat, drought, and blazing sun, are lovely. Most varieties come in some shade of blue or purple, or maybe white with blue streaks, and there aren’t many blue-blooming flowers that can handle the merciless prairie climate.

Two homes ago, I tried and tried to grow morning glories. Their seeds are notoriously challenging to start. You have to soak them in water overnight and use a nail file to nick a groove in their hard surfaces. I used to do all of that, and maybe would succeed in sprouting one feeble plant. I tried buying morning glory plants already started at the farmer’s market. I planted them in pots, envisioning them spilling in lush abundance over a stone wall bordering my patio. The vines were puny and feeble. They barely bloomed.

One home ago, I tried again with slightly better success. And then the potted vine managed to seed itself in the ground of my front flowerbed, and suddenly I was pulling morning glory sprouts everywhere.

I moved away to my present home, grateful to have escaped a vine that was threatening to grow larger and larger. Little did I know that the seeds evidently had fallen into my potted roses, and when I transplanted those roses into my flowerbeds, the morning glories took off. Then they took over. Now I feel like I’m constantly fighting the house-sized Crinoid monster from a Dr. Who episode. My rose bushes vanish during the summers, press-ganged into serving as structural support for a vine gone mad. Yes, morning glory blooms are lovely, but I would like to know if my antique rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, is still alive under that throttling mat of vine and flower.

Last year, I tried to pull down the vines, only to discover that the mockingbirds had built nests within them. I couldn’t disturb their habitat or harm the baby birds, so I left things alone. Now the vines are even bigger and more vigorous. I live with a monster — beautiful, yes — but out of control.

My roses, the intended focal point of my backyard garden, have been engulfed, eclipsed, and visually eaten by a force of nature that just won’t go away.

The vine and its beauty have a place, but only if it behaves. The same principle applies to your setting. If it behaves, and stays where it belongs, and doesn’t seduce you or distract you from your responsibilities to your plot, characters, and pacing, then by all means make it as lovely or as gripping or as gruesome as you desire.

Just don’t let it get away from you.


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2 responses to “Eaten by Setting

  1. How do you draw that line? I’ve got a couple of abandoned stories that have been eclipsed by setting. I hope, as I grow and discover how to wield my quill, I can return and rescue them.

    I loved the morning glory analogy. Been there. 🙂

  2. Drawing the line takes practice and a willingness to always put the story first. While I love meticulous setting detail, many readers just want an impression so they can get on with the plot.

    Oh, those sneaky morning glories. They seduce you with their prettiness, and then they take over everything.


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