Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Setting

I’m typing this in a hotel in Philadelphia, in lieu of actually prepping for the conference tomorrow. In about 30 minutes, I’ll be ambling over to the conference venue (literally next door) to go through the pre-conference checks. There may or may not be panic depending on just how well my Google slide presentation transferred to the (completely alien to me) Apple Keynote software the techie types for this thing prefer.

Not helped, I might add, by the fact that my travel system is a *nix laptop, my home machine is a Windows box which does not run the other “standard” for presentations (aka Microsoft Powerpoint) because I’m just fine working with either the big G’s stuff or Libre Office, and even more fine with the absence of big dollar signs when using it.

Yes, you should be taking note of these little frustrations and using them or something similar in your writing. It’s all part of getting the setting right. Which, without further ado, is today’s repost from the Extreme Pantser’s Guide.

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.


  1. Thought I might have been missing something with a completed project recently. Small details here and there. I understand what you mean though. I am working off of a setting that I know quite well (real world areas so that makes things a touch easier). Trouble is that any potential readers won’t have a clue unless I actually DESCRIBE the setting (office towers here, apartment buildings there. Canyons of buildings, etc.)
    Now realizing this, it will comfortably help me work on a few issues and aid in padding out the word count a touch which is a touch thin currently. Without infodumping! 🙂

    1. This “So familiar to the writer” also happens with series novels. Even though it’s a bit repetitious, we do have to clue readers into minor details such as what planet they’re on, dimension they’re in, whether there’s magic, FTL or both . . .

      Not just new readers, but regular readers who might have read eighteen great books since your last and need a quick reminder.

      I, umm, just got dinged on this. So I’m trying to figure out how to just casually slip this into the work that’s already in the polish and publish stage.

  2. “[…] reality doesn’t satisfy most people, which is why conspiracy theories are so popular – they make more sense than stuff just happening.” — Kate Paulk

    And that sums things up in one line better than many articles of multiple paragraphs. Thank you.

    1. I would add that it’s also based on the trustworthiness of the sources telling you that “stuff just happened”.

      Venezuela’s economy collapsed. (All together now) Unexpectedly.
      Islam is a religion of peace. (Pay no attention to the last fourteen centuries.)
      Obama’s terms in office were scandal free. (Be grateful I can’t reach you through the TV screen.)
      So many official statements are obvious bovine excrement that it invites (Nay! Demands!) speculation as to what they’re hiding and why.

      Take the recent Las Vegas atrocity.
      The official timeline of what happened when, keeps changing. Which we can fairly surmise is to spare the LV PD embarrassment.
      The heroic security guard was almost certainly an illegal alien. But that’s brushed aside because highlighting this would be uncomfortable for him, and *extremely* uncomfortable for his employer. (BTW, get that man a greencard.)
      But when it comes to the things that don’t make sense, they’ve already squandered their credibility and made us question their motives.
      The note clearly shown in pictures didn’t exist. Then it did, but was only trajectory information. For someone using around a dozen different weapons. That were all fired at cyclic rate. At a known range that any decent site can easily be calibrated for.
      Or that the shooter brought his laptop up to his room after removing the hard drive.
      Or that we’ve been told his extensive time overseas and his many foreign ties are irrelevant before any investigation could possibly have taken place.
      (Buggered if I know what to make of those, and the many other similar ridiculousnesses surrounding the event. But I *do* know that anything we’re officially told is a whitewash.)

  3. “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”

    Ayup. And it’s not so much the writer learning to include those details, as teaching your characters to be more observant so those details will tend to just naturally appear — and will do so without generating that ugly sense of having broken POV with what no one in the story would notice.

  4. Setting , and more so background, is why i really can’t pants… i tend to make a lot of world notes before writing, and that’s why the recent piece i pantsed about two half chapters of seemed strange to me.

    1. This is why I am a carefully prepared pantser (or panzer, if you ask my students.) For the WIP, I read five academic monographs on the time period, plus reviewed some general knowledge books I already had. Then I could pants the plot and story line.

      Yes, I tend to be setting driven.

  5. Oh, geez. You explained that so much better than the first reader did.

    “It’s just a family heirloom, not a magic sword. It only matters to him because his dead dad gave it to him, and it’s the only object he has from his family. Why does what it looks like *matter*? It’s a sword, it looks like a sword, visualize it any swordish way that works for you . . .”

    1. Because a rapier and a Claymore and a katana present different challenges to the wielder? Especially if said wielder is, oh, say, 5′ 2″ tall and weighs 110 lb? Or is 6’4″ and makes the current Mr. Universe look flabby? But that’s just me.

        1. That’s a fun way to do it. The sword is just a fancy stick until Our Hero learns how it works. Then it can be a katana, or a flamberge, or a kukri.
          If you were kinda short and had a big kukri, that would look like a “sword” to you.

    2. When writing a scene, you’re picturing something to guide what you’re writing (the story). When reading it, the reader is also picturing something based on the black marks on the page. The problem with generic “sword” (as an example) is that it’s unlikely what the reader is picturing is the same thing from the black marks as what you are picturing for the story.

      This can cause two problems:
      1. The reader isn’t immersed in the story because they’re constantly wondering what stuff is supposed to actually look like, i.e. lack of concreteness.
      2. At some point you may reference something which is consistent with your mental picture, but contradicts the reader’s, jarring them out of the story. For example, two pages later you have the character slide his sword into his belt to get it out of the way, but the reader pictured a sword which was either two large to do that, or long enough the character is now constantly tripping over it.

      So ideally, when describing, your being as specific as possible to lock the story into concrete, rather than muddy water which changes for the reader. Rapier instead of sword, Oak instead of tree, Stallion instead of horse, etc…

      The jarring issue is also why you want to get your describing done as much as possible at the start of the book/chapter/scene, so something later doesn’t retroactively change the picture on the reader in the middle of the action.

  6. 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.

    The lightbulb just clicked on… flickering…flickering…nope, we have illumination! Thank you!

    1. Well, actually, you should have only the setting information your characters notice. The point is to infiltrate that with enough information for the reader. That’s where it becomes Art.

  7. The third problem is that, writing merrily along, you reach automatically for the details that match your experience of the world. So that, for instance, you give a character light to see by under circumstances where there would be no light, because you’re just so used to having light be only a flip of the switch away, or even be shining spontaneously when you happen on a location.

    1. Since there are now LED bulbs with Passive Infra-Red sensors built in (I have one in a hallway), light “shining spontaneously” is part of our world. It’s not magic, but it might as well be.

      1. In A Diabolical Bargain, I had to remind myself more than once that an underground tunnel in the dead of night, without a single light, would be too dark to see anything. (Though revision got all the stray sight out.)

  8. I have this tendency to create problems for the characters to which there are no solutions. Example this week, a weapon that disentangles particles. Which, if you are a distributed intelligence that uses entanglement to connect parts of your brain and body together all over the solar system, would kill you deader than shit. The weapon is a mathematical algorithm that runs on quantum hardware. It bends the universe in higher dimensions to break entanglement.

    So instead of the robot girlfriends protecting their humans from the alien menace, now the squishy humans have to protect their robots.

    There’s some pissed off AIs right now, let me tell you.

    This morning I finally figured out a way to beat it. I feel like a boss. 🙂

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