The Glam and the Gristle

A couple of nights ago, Pencil uttered these words:

You know, I think circus books bug me for the same reason that books set on film sets or at MIT bug me. It feels like the author is in a sense looking in and being like ‘OOO THAT’S SO COOOL SEE HOW COOOOL’.”

It wasn’t long before a feature length discussion ignited in the menagerie, those of us present reflecting on how some settings in books and movies tend to feel inauthentic due to author intrusion and a general reverence for a particular backdrop. In short, we’d noticed a few reads where the ‘ooh shiny’ factor morphed into a laminated stereotype. Glamourous, but lacking depth – and a far cry from reality.

A common piece of writing wisdom is to treat your setting as another character. I agree with that, wholeheartedly; ideally, a setting should be as well-rounded and integral to the story as a leading character. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are so deeply entwined with their setting, it’s difficult to imagine the stories taking place elsewhere. A good setting doesn’t just serve as an interesting backdrop; it influences the character’s actions, thoughts and feelings – it flavours the novel, without overpowering it. Some geographic examples would be Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (Trenton) and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter (Miami). Dexter without a vibrant and sunny surface to contrast the darkness within his world would lose a large amount of the humour and charm; similarly, Stephanie’s tight-knit Burg community provides a unique mix of family life and illicit activity – something that highlights and interacts with the different sides to and desires of her character. Relocating either of these series would have a dramatic effect on the storyline, characters and general tone of the novels. Think butterfly wings and hurricanes (only replace the butterfly with a ten-foot-tall prehistoric moth and name it ‘Setting’).

But back to the glamourous. Settings that focus more on professions and industries – the circus, movies, law firms… these seem prone to leaving reality behind at the gate. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the default razzmatazz on television and the page, which is so often two-dimensional… missing out on the complete picture.

“Things aren’t all beautifully dressed people striding about with files in hand.” – Puppy, on onscreen law firms.

But what’s the reality?

Every person that works in one of these environments is doing just that – working. Things that may strike the writer and reader as exotic will be commonplace for the character. Keep that in mind when writing – what is it the character would notice about the setting? How would they interact? A newbie to a film set will notice very different things and interact in a very different way to a jaded veteran.

A good example of this comes from our own Pencil. Pencil was recently reading a novel that takes place on a film set – an environment Pencil has first-hand experience of. Said author had done their research of the setting, but the character (who was supposed to have worked in the biz for quite some time) was presenting the set to the reader with the eyes of an industry virgin.

“The first few chapters read like a middle schooler’s excited “My Day on a Film Set” essay. Every added slang term and industry description felt like it was lit up by flashing neon lights saying LOOK! I KNOW WHAT THE RIGHT WORD IS. And the writer gets them wrong – not very wrong, mind– right enough that anyone not in film would be impressed. But ever so slightly wrong, the way a really green PA might.”

Pencil, with inside knowledge, is always going to be tougher to please than an average reader when it comes to this setting – but it’s not impossible to impress her. Her example of a film set ‘done right’ in fiction comes from the Dresden Files.

“Jim Butcher does an excellent job at it–partly, I think, because Dresden is a complete newcomer to film, so reacts to the set world like an observer who isn’t used to it. That’s admittedly a bit easier to write. But as far as I can remember, all the small details that are thrown in are correct and enjoyable, and it really does feel to me–someone who works in film regularly–like Harry is on a film set. I think part of the key is that Butcher doesn’t try so hard to throw in every possible description of film production he can; instead he treats it like any other setting Harry encounters, peppering it with the occasional detail but not listing every costume Harry sees on a rack in wardrobe storage.”

Quality not quantity of information. No author intrusion, because Harry’s experience of the setting lined up with his familiarity. And this isn’t to say that if he were familiar with a set, he’d need to spill a stomachful of technical details across the page – the tip of the research iceberg is usually sufficient convey the setting and character’s knowledge of it. In most cases it’s best to learn as much as you can on a subject or setting, but to use just a sprinkle of that information – the minimum to taste.

And then there’s the mundane side of the magic. For all the dazzle, some of the most memorable details in a ‘glamourous’ setting are the ones that bring it back down to earth. The gristle.

“Who wants to watch everybody sit at the catering table checking their phones all day?” – Puppy, on the reality of movie sets.

It doesn’t sound the most thrilling scene[1], but these sorts of details and how they’re presented can help make a setting (and the characters within it) pop. For example, if the people checking their phones on set are doing so while a stuntwoman crashes a burning car – that tells the reader something (as well as providing the opportunity to sprinkle of humour via setting). Consider the mundane elements of the environments you use, and search for the points of interest within them.

Creating a fully-realized setting is a balancing act, and there’s room for both the guts and the glitter of an environment. If I’m reading about a circus, I want acrobatics on the high wire AND the guy in the ticket booth picking popcorn out his teeth. If it’s an outdoor film set, I want the fast cars AND the malfunctioning porta-potty. Recognisable nuggets of realism can help to make a setting feel more rounded and relatable; they can bring the magic home.

They’re the cookie dough in the ice cream. Without them, all you’ve got is vanilla.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Although that could depend on why they’re checking their phones – what they’re expecting.

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  • The proximity of the word ‘nuggets’ to ‘porta-potty’ made me queasy… some details you can omit yanno! lol
    But yes, treat setting as a character – a very good writer’s motto. I think sometimes I fail to add the less poetic details to my setting, but who wants to read about human effluence floating by when you’re describing a scenic garden by the Nile? lol

    • HA! I didn’t realise that… and now it’s bringing me an odd sort of joy. Nuggets!

      But hey even the grime can be poetic, but what you’re picking out depends on the setting and whether it’s appropriate to the story you’re telling and the impression you want to install in the reader.

      Human waste probably won’t be the down-to-earth detail you’ll want in most cases. 😉

  • I never thought of all of this and got quite a bit from the Menagerie’s observations and analysis regarding settings and how characters interact with them. I will read with a more critical eye now. When I do catch blatant errors in settings I am familiar with, it does a huge amount of damage to my enjoyment of the story. Authors cannot shortchange their research and having others test read their books so everything is accurately portrayed.

    • Totally agree – it’s important for writers to reduce the risk of a reader getting ejected from the story as much as possible. Proper research helps with this! 🙂

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