Out of Setting Comes Action

Tuesday night at the South Bay CWC, I heard Tanya Egan Gibson give a great talk about world building. Now, Tanya doesn’t write fantasy or science fiction. She doesn’t write historical. She writes, in her own words–satire.

Not a genre you necessarily think of as needing a whole lot of world building. But Tanya does. I’m guessing she would say that any genre demands world building.

Because when you build your story world, that world, in turn, steps in to impact, if not drive, what your characters will do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, as I do more research about 1910-1915, Chicago. (And, yes, I am SO going to read Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s Selling Hope, set in 1910 Chicago–just as Hailey’s Comet comes through.) In my first draft, I did research as I wrote, but I was focusing on getting to the story, to Caro’s story, not worrying as much about filling in the world around her. And this was good, because I not only got to the story, I got to two stories, which–overwhelming as it felt at first–was the right discovery for me to make.

But I’ll tell you, it was frustrating to write without setting. I found myself giving Caro and her supporting cast the same tasks over and over. I had her reacting in situations where I didn’t know precisely what she was reacting to…or with, which pretty  much made her feel (at least to me) hyperbolically melodramatic. Yes, that much. I do like the bracket as an early-drafting tool, but by the time I wrote “The End,” I was pretty sick of typing it all over the place.

I can’t write another draft this way. For my sanity, a big piece of Draft 2 is going to be setting research. Or, yep, world building. I am going to populate my notes and my scenes with real furniture, real architecture, real food, real lifestyles. I’ve already started. And you know what?  As I research, as I find out details, I’m getting ideas for the actions my characters will take–things they can do in their world.

During her talk, Tanya said, “If you furnish the place, people can live in it. And they will live large.”

Tanya’s right.

I leave you with this scene from Shanghai Knights. Look at the setting. Look at the way Jackie Chan uses the setting. Yes, sure, he knows the moves he wants to make. He knows the comedy he’s going to weave into the fights. But he also knows that setting can create action, can set up opportunities for anything and everything to become a piece of his choreography. I can just see him–Okay, let’s see. Open market…chase scenes…dodge the carts…duck between people…oh, hey! Lemons! And umbrellas!


  1. nrhatch says:

    Good luck “setting the stage” for Caro. I’m sure she’ll “fit right in.” 🙂


  2. Dave Swords says:

    Hi, Becky. Long time, no see.

    Building the world around the story, while building the story seems daunting, to say the least. The question is always, “How much is too much?”


    • beckylevine says:

      Hey, Dave, how fun to hear from you! Yes–too much is not good. My guess is you can never KNOW too much, but you have to pick and choose carefully–and Tanya’s view is that when you really know that world, things jump out at you from your knowledge to be used. I’m seeing it happen, a bit, as I work right now.

      How’s the writing going?!


      • Dave Swords says:

        The writing? Not as prolofic as I would like, but …

        Back to the subject at hand.

        I have always thought that no matter how detailed the writer can be in scene description, it is nearly impossible to create that exact image in the reader’s mind. If you try too hard, it gets boring (at least it does for me – when reading.)

        You need only tell enough to create the flair or flavor of the scene as you sense it. How you feel when you see it in your mind’s eye.

        Or am I on the wrong track?


        • beckylevine says:

          That seems right on to me, at least in my reading tastes. I don’t really like dense piles of details in historical fiction. I want a feel for the world and the differences between that place/time and mine.


  3. I have a hard time writing without setting, too. A lot of my support files are pictures of interiors of homes, places my characters live and visit, and the cities they move through. It’s so much easier to write scenes when you can literally see the place.


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, yeah. Tanya also suggested You Tube–she got the whole “experience” of going upside down on a roller coaster without having to do it! And was able to watch people’s train rides in New York without going–since the kinds of trains in use had changed since she moved away.


  4. K.M. Weiland says:

    Good post! I’m a fan of Tanya Egan Gibson, so I was interested in what she had to say on the subject. Setting is so easily overlooked – and yet it’s such a crucial factor in a good story. Settings haves to more than mere backdrops; they have to matter within the story.


    • beckylevine says:

      I really liked Tanya’s approach/attitude toward the whole thing. But that might just be because it synchs up nicely with my thinking this week!


  5. Great blog, Becky. As I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of my first draft, this came in handy. Now I have an idea of what to do next! And in case you get tired of[] you can always highlight a word in yellow. Mine is polka-dotted in yellow at this point!


  6. added this link to the class on setting….are you getting tired of my comments??


    • beckylevine says:

      This is so cool. I’m not going to reply to all–but WOW! I hope your students like the posts. 🙂


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