Using Maps to Edit Setting

One way to help authors to nail down concrete details of their setting is to sketch a rough map of the various places characters go in the story.

What a Map Can Show

Such a map helps me see logical inconsistencies in the layout of an author’s setting: if the poor side of town is north of the railroad tracks, what are all the multimillion dollar mansions doing there? It also helps me correct problems like the auto shop and the Baptist church both occupy the same corner of 10th and Main.

Often the information in the ms is so vague I don’t know where various elements go. Is the grocery store near the bank? I don’t know. How far is everything from everything else? I don’t know.

It’s not that readers necessarily need to know these things (the story events should make sense to the reader without having to refer to a map) but this is a clue that the setting is not as concrete as it could be. Instead of creating a story world and having a character interact with it, the author is shoving the character into various locations without any regard for how those locations relate to the overall setting.

When you detect a character being shoved around like a chess piece in this way, look closer and you are likely to find related developmental problems, such as lack of clear goals, motivations, and conflicts.

The Setting Sketch

When I see a problem with setting, I often ask the author to consider doing a type of character sketch for the setting. This might include questions like:

  • how old is the town a character is living in
  • how diverse are the residents (and in what ways)
  • what is the town famous for
  • what is the climate like
  • what do residents love and hate about it

These “setting sketches” can help the author go beyond visually describing a setting and can help them create a setting that feels like a real place.

Setting and the Five Senses

Authors often visualize their stories as if they were movies unreeling in front of them. This is unfortunate because it often means they focus heavily on the visual, when the world of narrative offers so much more!

Namely, the other four senses.

Using the FIVE Senses

Sight alone does not make a reader feel immersed in a story. When authors do this, it often makes the setting feel as if it were merely a backdrop to the unfolding story events and not an actual place that characters interact with.

My basic rule of thumb, and a place to start, is that every page of the ms should have a sense other than sight on it. Bells should jingle and trash cans reek. Skin should prickle and mouths should pucker.

Often the challenge is that authors don’t have the vocabulary for or language of the senses, so it can be helpful to provide resources for them. has some great resources on describing all five senses. Here’s one.

We can also encourage the author to show the characters reacting to their senses: “The stench of putrefying flesh turned my stomach” versus “It smelled disgusting.” This is a matter of showing the character in the setting, not just posing in front of it.

Edit Setting for Variety

The setting of a novel consists of multiple elements, big and small, that nest inside each other.

The Russian Nesting Doll of Settings

We might show this hierarchy of settings like so:

  • Milky Way galaxy
  • Earth
  • North America
  • United States
  • New Mexico
  • Santa Fe
  • San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road
  • 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16
  • the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16

If you think about it, the micro setting of “the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16” implies the existence of all of the other settings–Santa Fe, the United States. And of course we can get even more micro than this: the sofa in the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16, and so on.

Each of these settings has certain characteristics: Santa Fe is different from Roswell, New Mexico is different from Vermont, the United States is different from the Philippines.

How the various settings that go in to the living room of 601 San Mateo Road Apartment 16 are dealt with depends on the story (and by no means do all of them need to be named in order to provide context for the setting), but typically it will improve the story if the author moves at least some of the action out of the living room.

Exploring the Story World

Authors often get focused on micro settings at the expense of the macro setting. In other words, the living room ends up being the character’s entire world, when in fact the character has an actual entire world to interact with.

In some cases it makes sense for the story to take place in the living room. Most of the time, though, the story would be more engaging if the author provided greater variety in the setting. Letting a character explore and interact with the story world brings both character and setting alive.

Just as a movie set only in one location at only one time of day can feel one-note (not as a universal rule, but typically), so too can a novel where most story events take place in the same location, especially if the characters are constantly doing the same thing in that setting. I would say that in novels, the number one setting for conversations is around a table while the characters are eating.

Certainly characters may be expected to eat and certainly tables are conducive to having conversation around but after a while all the meals blur into one, at least for the reader if not for the characters. Moving some of these conversations to other locations will help the story feel more vivid.

Therefore, part of our job is to play location scout: “AU: Consider moving this conversation to the park/gym/International Space Station.”

It’s even better if these locations reflect character traits: the bowling enthusiast could have a conversation at the bowling alley, the swimmer at the pool, the hiker on the trail.

Unlike a movie, asking the author to have the characters attend a wedding, go to the beach, or play billiards at the snooker hall does not cost extra.

Turning some of these conversations into other kinds of plot events would also be a good idea, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Setting problems: lack of concrete locations

Writers often use setting like a painted backdrop to their stories, rather than as an integral element of their storytelling. As DEs, we can help them make the setting come to life.

If we think of Wuthering Heights, we think of the Yorkshire moors. When we think of Moby Dick, it’s a whaler on the Atlantic Ocean. My Antonia = the Nebraska prairie. In each case, the same story could not be told in another setting.

Not all stories need to be as closely identified with their settings: a cozy mystery could take place in small-town Oklahoma about as easily as it could be set in small-town Ohio. But readers need to feel as if the events are taking place somewhere.

Make Setting Concrete

One of the most common setting problems I encounter when I’m editing is what I like to call the undisclosed location. The author drops the reader into the middle of the action in some unnamed locale and the story unfolds without our ever knowing where, exactly, it’s unfolding.

So, I have to encourage the author to name the setting early on. A vague “college town in the Midwest” is not the same as Ames, Iowa. Even if the setting is made up, it needs to have a name and a location. If the setting is based on a true-life location, I help the author figure out how to make deliberate choices about how fictionalized the setting will be.

Elements to Fictionalize

For example, despite the disclaimer you see in front of every published novel (some version of “Names, characters, locations and events are all products of the author’s imagination”), most writers set their stories in real places: Los Angeles, Oahu, Paris. When they do, readers expect them to get the main elements right: Los Angeles has about four million people, Oahu is an island, Paris has a lot of French-speaking residents.

But some elements may need to be fictionalized: the address where the protagonist works, the name of the restaurant that burns down. This helps preserve the illusion of reality: readers may know that 261 Hudson Street is an apartment building, not an insurance company headquarters, and the discrepancy of having the protagonist show up there to go to work is likely to pop readers out of the story. Or they know that the Chipotle on 23rd Street is in fact still standing so hearing about how it went up in flames is a reminder that they are reading fiction.

If what is happening in a specific location and who is causing it would tend to suggest criminal or unethical actions, I often recommend that authors fictionalize these elements, not because they will get into legal trouble if they don’t but that some readers have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. If an author shows a child pornography ring being run out of the local Pizza Hut, someone, somewhere will be phoning in a crime tip to the local police.

(Same with characters: back when a crotchety old lady ran the Raven Bookstore where I lived and sometimes set my stories, I did not call it the Raven Bookstore and I moved the crotchety old lady to another location so she wouldn’t recognize herself.)

On the other hand, sometimes authors go too far and won’t even let their characters get a cup of coffee from Starbucks, so I assure them that Starbucks won’t mind the ordinary consumption of their goods, even if it is a fictional character drinking the latte.