Setting by Jack M. Bickham

By Ekta R. Garg

May 15, 2013

In this second book on my list for The Write Edge Year-long Writing Workshop, I read and studied Setting by Jack M. Bickham, prolific novelist and writing instructor.  This book dove into the details of what constitutes a successful setting in a strong novel.  Once again I found the book informative and enlightening but slightly dense.  It took a long time for me to read through each subset of pages, digest them, and begin reading again.  Once again I found the examples a little outdated.  But ultimately the book provided me with many valuable tools to build a better story for the next one I intend to write.

Bickham defines setting as “a vital component of any story and includes the physical backdrop but also the historical background and cultural attitudes of a given place and time, the mood of a time, and how the characters talk.”  He goes on to explain how these things must work in lockstep with the plot, characters, theme, and general emotional tone of the story if it’s going to work for the reader.

“When you choose your setting, you had better choose wisely and well, because the very choice defines and circumscribes your story’s possibilities.”

While writers have to consider setting as its own component in their work they also have to remember that it’s not the only component, and this is where reading Setting worked hand in hand with Characters and Viewpoint.  Bickham says, “Setting tends to form character in ways you can analyze and use in your work.  Define the kind of setting a character is found in, and by doing so you go far toward defining the kind of character it must be.”

Another great point Bickham makes regarding setting as it relates to character comes in Chapter 10, entitled “Setting and Viewpoint: It’s How You Look At It.”  He cautions writers against dumping every scrap of information they have about setting, character, and everything else in the readers’ laps.

“You may want to tell more than necessary just because you happen to know it.  The reader seldom needs to know all you do at any point.  The readers’ concern is with what the character knows.”

I also really appreciated what Bickham had to say about style.  Writers shouldn’t force a certain way of writing, he says.  They shouldn’t try to make their writing flowery or literary or something else.  In fact, the best kind of writing doesn’t try too hard to be anything.  It simply exists.

“In handling setting, as in all other parts of your fiction writing, strive for directness and simplicity.  Such writing is the most graceful and effective of all.”

While Bickham’s own writing style in this book can feel a little heavy-handed and from a generation ago, his book still carries a lot of weight.  As with the previous book, I wouldn’t recommend Setting for inexperienced writers simply because Bickham’s book might intimidate those who have just begun to exercise the craft.  But it should definitely be on the list of any experienced writer who wants to dig deeper into this wonderful art we all share.

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