Ciao, SEers! Today, we’re going to talk a little about the four elements of setting. More precisely, the first element: time.
I could give you the simple dictionary definition, or one so complex only Einstein or Hawking would understand it. (And yes, I’d have to plagiarize them to do so.) But for our purposes, we’re going to focus on time at both the era-level and the instant-level.
Era-Level Measurements of Time
Sometimes this is kind of a given. But it often doesn’t get explored to the extent it could. I’m talking about the era in which your story is set. Even the difference of a decade can make big differences in your work. Think of how quickly we went from clunky desktop computers to laptops. Or from rotary phones to cordless to bulky cellphones to sleek rectangles that slide easily into our pockets.
A story set in ancient Egypt will have different language, clothing, and customs than one set in Puritan America. Victorian England will be different than 1940s Germany. Modern day Peru and Peru ten thousand years from now will likely be very different. Our Civil War era and the ending of apartheid in South Africa might seem to have many similarities, but more than a century separated the two (not to mention an ocean). How can you best use the era (and all it encompasses) to define your story.
- Monetary systems. Is it a barter era? Gold? Cash? Credit? Something not invented yet?
- Clothing. Floor-length, full-hoop skirts with tightly laced corsets impact a woman’s movement far differently than yoga pants.
- Environment. A steam-punk novel will likely have a lot more air-quality issues than one set in the non-mechanical past. Or a clean-energy future.
- Religious importance. Pilgrims seeking religious freedom made their houses of worship a prominent part of their settlements. Societies valuing scientific progress may not have anyplace to worship at all. (Does that bother their characters, or do they embrace that?)
- Food. A recently killed buck in Sherwood Forest will be treated a lot differently than a recently killed buck by a homesteader in the mountains in the 1800s.
The details you choose matter. And they can help define the era your story is set in.
Instant-Level Measurements of Time
When we talk about “what time it is” with respect to the setting of your novel, we need to think in terms of hour of the day and season of the year.
Time on the Clock
A setting of dawn and a setting of dusk might both share a hazy, dimly lit quality. But a story taking place at sunrise often has a sense of hope. The sky is brightening, a new day is dawning. There is promise and potential for adventure, romance, or any number of wonderful things to occur.
On the other hand, a story set in the gloaming can feel oppressive. Foreboding. Like time has run out.
Granted, a lot has to do with how a character responds to the time of day in which the story is set. A college freshman who skipped studying to party until 5:00 a.m. probably won’t greet the 7:30 alarm by looking forward to wonderful opportunities. The hangover, combined with the dread of failing a calculous final, will likely yield a lot of groans until the alcohol-fog lifts and panic takes over. (Particularly if the student hits “snooze” too many times and is then running late.) Conversely, someone who put in twelve hours at a dead-end job is probably delighted to see the end of the day.
Season of the Year
Instant-level time also must incorporate the month or season of the year. I’ve read many books where the author never mentioned the month or season and never included any context clues for me to ground myself in the story. This is a wasted opportunity. Not only does the reader have a bad sense of season (or perhaps none at all), the author can’t use the setting as an additional character.
What do I mean by that? Here’s one example: Harsh elements can become a secondary antagonist in the story. I assure you, The Shining would have been a much different story if winter hadn’t isolated the family from the rest of the world.
Here’s another example. Take a blind date. There’s already a lot of angst involved with that situation. What if it occurs on Valentine’s Day? The characters would have crowds to contend with. In the north, weather could be a factor. What kind of impression would a woman make whose dress got splattered with slush? How would a man look if he slipped on the ice and tore his pants? Set the same blind date in the spring. Rain puddles and wind could become pitfalls. Summer? Sweat stains. You get the idea. The same event held in different times of the year offer different opportunities to the author to employ additional conflicts or obstacles.
I think you can see how both the era and the instant can help enrich your story and help ground your reader. Next time, we’ll discuss setting as it relates to locale. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you use era and instant effectively in your work. Let’s talk about it below.