The Pantser Body Of Knowledge: Setting – the mythical tribe of Fakawi
If you’re anything like me, setting isn’t something you, the extreme pantser, thinks about. It’s just there.
The problem with this is that without learning how to Heinlein the key setting information, there’s a tendency to either stop everything for a big fat infodumpus, or to wind up with talking head syndrome, where there’s simply not enough detail, and the reader ends up like the mythical tribe of Fakawi, which is known only for appearing in strange places and shouting “We’re the Fakawi!” (If you’re confused, try saying that out loud. Preferably where small children won’t hear you, and not at work).
Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall. I certainly wouldn’t consider anything like the height of the cube walls and what they’re made of relevant, or the desk, or the chair. Everyone here has a pretty decent mental image of what my cube looks like, because we all know what cubicles are and how they work from movies, TV, or personal experience (or from Dilbert, which is sadly accurate).
Would someone from late Victorian times have any idea what I’m talking about? Not likely. And therein lies the fun of setting and why pantsers need to focus on it. We pantsers tend to be strongly character-driven, and not notice the things that our characters don’t notice. In any genre that doesn’t involve here-and-now-and-familiar, that means we’re likely to leave out things readers need to know. We know them, but they never leave the familiar confines of our skulls.
So, how to stop this happening? Usually the first step is to let something you’ve written sit for long enough that it’s moderately unfamiliar, although if you can bully… ahem… convince a friendly mentor to read it and tell you where you need more detail it does help. Then you go back and edit. A lot. Mostly Heinleining a detail here, another there. Instead of a ‘tree’, mention the pale barkless trunk, the lack of branches until twice your character’s height, and the narrow leaves the color of old ashes – preferably on separate occasions in the same scene rather than all at once. If you can weave it into what’s happening even better: the character’s clothes are the wrong color to blend in with the tree, he can’t climb it because it doesn’t start branching until way too high, and those damn leaves crackle underfoot and reek of eucalypt and he’s never going to avoid the pursuers unless he can get to someplace he can hide.
Going back and doing this to something antique of yours that you have no intention of publishing, just as an exercise, is also helpful.
What eventually happens – and yes, this does seem to be typical of pantsers – is that the more you do this kind of editing, the more you start remembering to add these details in when you’re writing your first draft. Eventually, putting in the right information happens automatically, although not usually before you’ve gone through a profoundly unnerving period when you’re doing it automatically but you’re not actually recognizing this and you have absolutely no ability to judge what’s going on.
Since extreme pantsers also tend to improve in leaps, this is pretty common, and terrifying – you know what your writing is different, qualitatively, than anything you’ve done before. But you don’t know if it’s good or not because your conscious mind hasn’t caught up yet. In my experience, the best thing to do with this is to ride the tsunami and trust the judgment of your first readers (you do have first readers who’ll tell you if you go off-track, right?).
All of this leads into the second big problem with setting that bedevils extreme pantsers. We tend to get a kind of core dump of what the world is, and tease out details as we go. Unfortunately, it’s usually real-world enough that it breaks the rules of story: it doesn’t make sense.
Everyone here knows that reality doesn’t have to make sense. It just is. Story is a different beast, and setting has to follow the rules of story, or it won’t satisfy readers. Hell, reality doesn’t satisfy most people, which is why conspiracy theories are so popular – they make more sense than stuff just happening.
We pantsers have to take what we have and figure out some kind of narrative history to attach to the setting to make it make sense. And yes, that history is its own story, which then needs to have enough bits Heinleined in to give the right feel and to make sense of what’s there. It’s the same basic process, except that most of this information won’t actually appear in the story, and may never show up anywhere except inside your skull, but without it your story is effectively rootless. I usually find I get this information through deconstruction of the “Okay, these people don’t like magic. What would make them so anti-magic? A magical disaster? Okay, so what would have caused that?” kind, going back through the world’s history until I’ve got something that works and feels right.
A final word here for the extreme pantser: don’t discount ‘feels right’. If you’ve done your research and have a decent idea of how people work, how stuff happens and the like, ‘feels right’ is a kind of thumbnail guide to ‘all the pieces are in place somewhere even if I can’t see them all consciously’. There are times when that’s all you’ll get until after the book is finished. Sometimes until after it’s published. And yes, that has happened to me.