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?

Actual Writing Advice: Cutting Characters

On Friday before I wrote Spark Tally, I was disgruntled about my current story. It was taking far too long to get the protagonist away from her home, and I had these new side stories going on which I’d never intended. So I wrote Spark Tally, played Pathfinder and still wanted to throw the virtual manuscript in the trash.

In the morning I woke up to my weekly critique from my crit group. I didn’t even care. I read the comments though and they were fine. I needed more sensory details and such. But I knew they didn’t touch the core of my problem. If only I knew what that problem was.

And then it hit me. I needed to cut a character.

Which meant 37,000 words shredded.

In my experience, there’s nothing an author hates to hear about their story more than “You need to cut a character.” Whenever I suggest it to someone, I always want to add, “Don’t hate me. I’ve had to cut loads of characters in my time. It’s really for the best.” But I never say that.

Writers get attached to their characters. The first time I used the current story I’m writing in a class, the teacher told me I really didn’t need all the brothers. They cluttered the story without adding anything. “But what about the Weasleys?” I wanted to cry. JK Rowling has several characters in her stories that don’t really do much. At the very least she could’ve combined the two oldest Weasley brother’s into one.

But I cut them—all but one. And magically, that swept away a whole lot of problems. I saw more clearly what I really wanted to focus the story on.

The current character I’m cutting, I’ve introduced to the story in various ways and guises. He really belongs in the second book, and I don’t know why I keep trying to introduce him in the first book. Maybe to give the main character one friend she can trust. But even though she really could use one friend, he’s not helping the story at all. He’s distracting from her brother’s story, introducing subplots that don’t belong and delaying her departure. He needs to go.

It wasn’t hard for me to delete him like it was the brothers several years ago. Some writer’s talk about their character’s being their babies, but they’re not. They’re fictional constructs. And as fictional constructs, you can reincarnate them in other stories. In fact, if you really like a character, then make a whole book around her.

Cutting characters is about being a mature writer. It’s about seeing the big picture. The worst part for me was all those words lost. It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten so far into a book before I realized a character had to go. And he wasn’t a minor character. He was major.

I’m 5000 words into the new manuscript already and so much happier. My fingers need to fly because I want to get this done before the kids are out of school. That means at least 20,000 words to write this week. I’ll let you know how it went on Friday :)