Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

Landing on a mystery planet
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick 


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 was 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.

Keep Them Grounded

In any case, something an author never wants to do is initiate their reader into the Fugawi Tribe. A reader who does not know where he is—or where the characters are—is not going to be a happy reader. He does not want to be lost in space… or time. (That 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….”)

Anywaaaaaay…. 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, up front and right away, where and when the story is taking place. They can not 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 consecutive scenes are in the same place and sequential in time. Once the setting is established, the reader will assume he’s stayed where he was.

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 to wait a paragraph or two to find out where a scene is set, but after that they start to feel lost in space.

Easy Techniques

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 and place: “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 an event specific to that time and place: “To Mary, the top of the just-completed Empire State Building seemed to scratch the very sky….”

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—around 2035—which is actually harder than if I’d set it farther out, because we can make some educated guesses at what 2035-ish technology and living conditions might look like. However, it’s easy for a reader to disagree with my predictions—and be able to support that disagreement.

Some kinds of fantasy have their own unique situation when it comes to time and space: depending on the story, the setting may be completely divorced from the Earth we know and from its historical timeline. 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 cover that in Part 20.

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.”

So while the house of Ussher was dark and foreboding, it was what went on inside it that made it the terrible place it was.

Questions for You

This time the questions for you to ask 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?
    • If not, when, where, and how might they do that?
  • 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 to do it, and why?
  • When he 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 he 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? Place your ideas and suggestions in the black comment box that’s located below the list of related posts.

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

One comment to Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

  • SplitSun  says:

    […] when they’re new and important, and the poor reader becomes a member of the Fugawi Tribe. (See Part 18 for an explanation of who they […]

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