Setting by Jack M. Bickham

Novels and stories can’t be separated from their settings. MOBY-DICK makes no sense outside of a maritime whaling culture. THE LORD OF THE RINGS can’t be transplanted to modern-day America. More than a physical place, setting is also time period and atmosphere and mood and culture. The importance of setting, Bickham argues, can’t be stated strongly enough. The better a writer evokes the setting, the more readers will feel involved in the story. And isn’t reader involvement the number one goal of fiction?

No matter what, setting the scene means writing some kind of descriptive passage, but description is where most writers fall into the purple prose of overwriting. Bickham cautions us over and over to leave things out. He expects us to research the setting thoroughly, and then put only a fraction of that research on the page. He shows how a single, telling detail can stand in for long passages of static description, and where to sprinkle those details in. He also shows writers when it’s okay to make stuff up (not as often as you think).

How you handle setting, of course, depends on what kind of book you’re writing. Bickham breaks it down by genre. Readers of westerns, for example, expect isolation to be a major factor in the setting. Science Fiction readers want the plot problem to grow out of the technical details of the setting. Romance readers expect the setting to affect the protagonist emotionally. The details emphasized in the setting can illuminate character, set the tone, and even change the direction of the plot. Bickham provides checklists and exercises to make sure we are using our settings the way we want to.

The most practical chapter was the one titled “Showing Setting During Movement and Action.” In modern fiction, this is the best way to show setting. Readers dislike stories that stop or slow for any reason, especially static description. Bickham advises writers to maintain deep point of view and only describe what the characters experience directly, using strong verbs. He gives an extended example of a car chase that’s well-worth studying.

The danger of isolating one aspect of fiction is that it makes it seem more important than it is. In this case, SETTING puts setting in its proper place. Bickham wants writers to thoroughly understand setting. He also wants us to use that knowledge as it’s meant to be used–in the service of the story.


rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend this book


3 thoughts on “Setting by Jack M. Bickham

  1. I like Bickham. His advice is always so clearly and simply stated. His books helped me puzzle out some concepts in the “early” years. I might have to find this one just because I like the way he writes. Thanks.

  2. Insightful analysis–as always. The scope and utility of this work is now crystal clear; thanks!

Leave a Reply to Jaye Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s