A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 3

In the last part of this series about a novel being more than just a plot or characters, we’ll take a look at some of most overlooked elements of novel writing, the kind of things that are either simply ignored or barely shown by writers – Setting, Background and Time.
Does it matter about setting? Is the reader likely to care even if the setting is hardly mentioned?
Again, setting is one of those elements that writers pay less attention to, but shares equal importance with any part of a well-constructed novel. The setting tells the reader where and when the story takes place – whether it’s just one location or many.  They can be real settings or fictitious, but whichever they are, the setting gives the reader more information, instead of an empty story.  The more information the author can supply, the stronger the story.
Many writers make the mistake of either not making the setting known, or they go overboard with far too much description that the result is badly written and quite boring for the reader.
Clever writers often use setting rather like a painting backdrop. A brief description is enough for the reader to build a picture in his or her mind, rather like brushstrokes on a canvas. The best way to help the reader understand the setting it is to sprinkle the narrative with palatable snippets so that the description doesn’t overwhelm the reader in large, daunting chunks.
So, whether the novel is set in the Civil War, the Wild West, warn-torn Europe or the middle of space, make sure the reader knows from the outset.
A thoroughly researched background will give your reader plenty to think about, not only in terms of your characters but also in terms of the setting and the things that are happening around the characters. 
Think of that oil painting again. It's just as important to know what is happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Brief, vivid descriptions will bring a background to your reader's attention, and will enable your reader to see the whole picture, without destroying the whole view.
And, just as with a setting, make your reader aware of where the action is happening, but drop some hints about the circumstances of the story, the reasons why the events are happening in that particular setting with your characters.
Background can be anything that relates to the story and your characters. Take the Civil War example. There is plenty of background here – the turmoil of war, the experience of those who lived through it, the stakes...they all form the background to a story.
Just don’t ignore it; otherwise you’ll leave your reader guessing.
Does your story have a sense of time?  Again, it’s one of those things writers rarely think about, but every story has a time – the period in which the writer tells that story.
It doesn’t matter if your novel takes place in a 24 hour period or spans generations, what is important is that the reader understands this adequately. It is surprising how many writers fail to tell the reader what time of day or night it is in a novel, instead they concentrate on all the action.  
A writer doesn’t have to necessarily tell the actual time to the reader to do this, unless the story involves a clock, or clock-watching, as part of a motif, however, any subtle hint is enough for the reader to understand the time of day or year. The setting of the sun will tell the reader evening is approaching. The glare of streetlights or the moon denotes night time. The long shadows cast by the sun in the afternoon shows the reader.
Writers can also hint at the seasons to show the reader the time of year without blatant exposition, for instance the leaves on the ground in autumn, the fresh crisp air or the touch of frost of winter, or the sweat and discomfort of heat in the summer. All it needs is a little artistic thought.
But what about days, months or even years? How can a writer show the passage of time without writing about every minutiae? Again, there is no need for huge descriptions, but rather hints at the passage of time.
Writers do this in a number of ways:
  • New chapters or sections allow the writer to show a time shift. From one chapter to the next, the writer can show that time has moved on.
  • Transitional scenes – they bridge the gap between one moment of time to another by hinting it in the preceding scene, either done through narrative or dialogue – and then start a new scene in the new time frame.
  • Indirect exposition – this hints within the narrative or a character’s dialogue that time will elapse, so when the next scene starts, the reader will know that a certain amount of time has passed.
Whatever method you choose, always let the reader know when, where and how. The more information you give them, the more committed to the story they become and the stronger your story becomes.
It’s very easy to miss out a lot of these elements simply because we don’t consciously think about everything, but the more a writer understands these essentials, the easier it will be to write a fully realised novel.
Next week: Sorting fact from fiction


  1. I really enjoyed these posts. You have created clear and effective explanations for aspects that many writers (and readers) do not think about when engaging a text. Thanks so much.


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