Economy of Settings


This isn’t really writing advice—just me rambling a bit.

My son is a thespian. We’ve been having more and more discussions about the craft of acting. He noticed in sitcoms that there aren’t many sets. It was most obvious during his brief stint of watching Cheers. The only set in the first season is the front of the bar. Viewers might get a glimpse of the back room that first season, but pretty much the bar is it.

Of course it’s cheaper to have just one set. You keep the cost of labor and materials down. But is something else going on?

When I was writing my recent novel, I found myself not wanting to introduce anymore new settings after the middle of the book. I’d think of a scene and then reject it because it would be at a totally new place for the reader. I thought that was strange. It costs me nothing but time and energy to create a new set. Was I being lazy? Maybe.

In my fantasy books, I love creating new sets. And it’s pretty standard for fantasy. You have a character. She goes on a quest. She encounters new characters and new places as she goes. There’s even a sort of pattern: home that she has to leave, scary place where she gets hurt, idyllic place where she heals, more scary places that get worse and worse until she ends up in the terrifying lair of the villain.

So I know I’m not lazy about settings when I write fantasy. Why in contemporary fiction did I shut down my settings?

I’ve decided on two reasons: familiarity for the reader and character economy.

When you see the bar at Cheers or the bar in How I met Your Mother or the living room in The Big Bang Theory, you are instantly drawn to a certain frame of mind. You have expectations of comfort, or humor or feeling like you are where everybody knows your name. By limiting the settings in a book, I think a writer can foster those sorts of expectations: Oh we’re back at the coffee house now, the characters are getting a break. Or she’s at her job now, something bad is going to happen. And you can surprise the reader by mixing up the expectations.

In a way, settings can become a character of the book. Which means, they should have some of the same rules. Having Julie as my editor, I know that I’m going to write in characters that eventually get cut or have their stories trimmed. No matter how tight I think the story is, it’s going to happen. There are several famous writers out there who could use Julie as their editor. Having a massive cast of characters is not always a good thing. She’s never cut one of my settings, but I think that was going on in the back of my mind during this last book– “We’re half way through the book, do we really need to go to Putt-Putt?”

What do you guys think? Do you like to drag your characters around to wherever because that’s part of the fun, or do you focus on keeping only a few places for your characters to visit?