Setting the Stage

No matter where you place your story on the Science-Magic continuum, you have a choice: do some research, or invent a lot of internally-consistent rules for your setting. (Sometimes, of course, you do both!) Understanding where a story lies on the continuum can can inform both your writing and later your marketing choices, but for the moment let’s focus on the primary use of the above: telling your readers what kind of story they are reading by establishing its vivid and unique setting.
Obviously a key difference between speculative and realistic fiction is that speculative fiction takes place in a universe different from our own… and understanding that difference, whether it is subtle or major, is going to be critical to a reader’s enjoyment of the story.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. In “To Cuddle Amy” Nancy Kress is giving us a world much like our own; by showing us a normal couple engaged in a dispute over their child, she anchors us in that reality… and then she deftly slips us information on the few critical differences between her universe and the real world. In Kress’s case, the setting elements are key to the story’s ‘surprise’. Meanwhile, Joan Slonczewski tells us what to expect of her story with her title, “Tuberculosis Bacteria join U.N.”
Establishing an SF setting should be fun. You have created an entire universe, and are sharing your vision with readers. Go for it!
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, consider first and foremost what the reader needs to know, what they must understand to ‘get’ your story. Plan to put this info in the story in as clear and understandable a fashion as possible. Readers want to feel smart; they want to get it, and it is not your job to make it harder.
Consider “To Cuddle Amy”. Kress puts the photo of sixteen-year-old Amy into her scene… then shows us the fourteen-year-old version. At this point we may not know what’s going on, but the clue, the indication that something is not-of-this-world, is unmistakeable. More importantly, when she does reveal that her beleaguered parents can in fact get their sweet young baby Amy back, Kress doesn’t force us to play a guessing game. We hear about the embryos; she tells us explicitly that we’re in a world where medical science can produce exact clones of a child.
Giving a quick clue as to what kind of story you’ve written doesn’t have to involve pages of explanation. If you open with your Heroine on her horse, sword drawn, charging at the enemy, readers will assume they’re in a heroic fantasy or historical drama… at least until you hand them the next clue. If her boots ring hollowly on the deck plating of a Starship while a lowly ensign salutes nervously, we’ll go with military SF. One or two key details should be all you need to firmly establish your setting and your genre in the minds of your reader.

Questions to ask when thinking about setting:

  • Start with what is different, what is impossible: How does it work? What effect does the difference have on the people within that environment?
  • What is the place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold?
  • How does the place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What special abilities does its technology or magic convey? Who controls those special abilities, and how are they viewed? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
  • How do you want to place your reader in your setting?

Addressing the above points should give you plenty of material for meeting the demands of that old writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” You should be armed with a handful of vivid sensory details: now, instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.

Remember, in a short story every word counts! If you can learn to quickly evoke the heart of your setting with a few intensely sensory paragraphs, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable SF story.

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