Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.16: Your Setting is a Telegraph

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Your setting can quickly tell the reader what kind of a story they’re reading, and in this episode we’ll talk about how we make that happen. Think of it as the “establishing shot” principle from film making, expanded to cover whatever worldbuilding details we choose to reveal first.

Liner Notes: Here are the Schlock Mercenary Book 19 prologues Howard described, complete with the footnotes which make fun of prologues.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write an opening. You can start from scratch, or re-open something you’re already working on. Write a half page, and with three concrete details establish the tone. Now rewrite, keeping the dialog the same, and use different details to telegraph a different tone.

Thing of the week: Terminal Alliance, by Jim Hines.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Setting can be used to quickly telegraph the kind of story they are reading, the tone and mood. E.g., a prologue can establish the tone of the entire story. Specific, concrete details can help. Don’t forget the Stooges’ Law, a coconut cream pie on the mantle in the first act means by the end of the third act, someone will get hit in the face with it. Screenwriting has the opening shot, with a visual setting. Where a meeting is happening, what they’re doing, where the events are happening can do a lot to indicate the type of story. If you have a tonal shift, before telegraphing it, consider whether the surprise of the unexpected shift is part of your point or not. When you finish a book, you may need to revise the first chapter and fine-tune the setting to get the tone right. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 16.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Your Setting is a Telegraph.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Howard, when we were preparing this, you gave us the title. So why don’t you explain what you mean by Your Setting is a Telegraph.

[Howard] it comes from the term telegraphing the punch, telegraphing the punchline, telegraphing the joke, whatever. Which is often used negatively. But here we mean your setting is going to telegraph to the reader very, very quickly… You’re going to communicate to the reader very, very quickly what kind of a story they’re reading. Are they reading a comedy, are they reading military sci-fi, are they reading a puzzle story about alien archaeology, all of those sorts of mood things can be established by your setting, and can actually be established very, very quickly when you introduce them to your setting.

[Brandon] Yeah. You can always, of course, establish these other ways, as well. Through word choice, through what your character is doing, through situation, but this… We’re talking about world building this year, and we want to really talk about how to use your descriptions, your settings, or where people are, or things like this to give an immediate and powerful indication of the tone of your story. A lot of times, one of the big questions I get from students is, “Should I use a prologue or should I not?” Which is one of those loaded questions, which is… What kind of juice do you want? Right?


[Brandon] Should I have a drink of juice or not? Do you like juice? Is it breakfast? Do you want a prologue? Well, one of the reasons you might want a prologue is if you are having trouble with your first chapter establishing the tone of the entire story, then you can use your prologue to do this. Now that’s of course dangerous because maybe you need to look at that first chapter and learn how to maybe make that one, but it is one of the things you can do, is… I often use the Wheel of Time as an example of this. In the beginning of the Wheel of Time, in chapter 1, the first few pages take place with the young man on a farm with his father. It’s a little bit creepy because he keeps seeing shadows, but that’s not a real indication of tone. If you were taking those opening scenes as a promise, it might be, “Oh, this is going to be a pastoral, perhaps horror.” So Robert Jordan has a prologue where a madman is wandering through a burning castle, screaming for his dead wife and children, who are at his feet and he can’t see them. Things are on fire, and there’s been a big war, and it’s like, “All right. We’re in the middle of a giant war drama with some psychological elements.” So that early introduction of tone is very important to set the tone for the entire series. How can we do this? What suggestions do you have to our listeners?

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I find is that if you are specific and concrete with your choices in the beginning, that this does a lot. So, like if I am writing military SF, then having a hand cannon says we’re going to be shooting some things. If I’m doing a comedy, then in very broad terms, if there’s a coconut cream pie there, we know that at some point… It’s the Stooges’ law, that if there is a coconut cream pie on the mantle, then by the end of the third act, someone is going to get hit in the face with it. These are the things that happen that can communicate tone to the reader, because we latch onto these concrete details.

[Howard] Well, it’s important to recognize that the version of Chekhov’s law that Chekhov actually said, which is if you want to fire a gun in act three, you need to show it on the mantle in act one. If you want to hit somebody with a coconut cream pie, you have to show us a coconut cream pie on the mantle in act one, so that we know that this is a story in which there can be a pie fight.

[Margaret] I think it’s interesting in the difference between fiction and what I’m thinking in terms of screenwriting, because it’s your opening shot. Right? It’s very hard to avoid establishing setting, because the visual is right there. In screenplay format, the first thing you say is this an interior or an exterior? What is our setting? Is it day or is it night? That’s the first thing somebody reading after fade in is going to encounter in a script. In fiction, you have a little more freedom in there. Like, if you’re starting with a character, but it’s remembering to put the character in a place, because you can get so much lifting done, as you say, in terms of tone by where you’re meeting somebody, what they’re doing, where these events are happening. A conversation that happens in a diner is different than a conversation that happens in a car that’s speeding towards a cliff or in a prison visiting area. All of those start you on three very different types of stories.

[Howard] If I have a science fiction… An opening science-fiction shot that is in the science-fiction equivalent of a mausoleum with data-encoded corpsicles or whatever, and that is what I am describing, the reader has a pretty clear indication that life and the ending thereof is going to be one of the thematic focuses of this story.

[Brandon] One of my favorite episodes of Firefly is the one that starts with Mal in the desert naked. Opening shot.

[Mary Robinette] That’s one of my favorites, too.


[Brandon] That shot indicates wacky hijinks are going to occur. Not just him, desert, naked, but his pose, the way he’s talking. He’s not, like, lying there, dying of thirst, crawling through the desert. He’s like, “Huh.” Just one shot. He says something, but you wouldn’t even need to. You know that you are going to chuckle and wacky hijinks ensue. I really like this.

[Margaret] Things have gone rapidly out of his control over the course of this episode.

[Brandon] I love when stories can do that.

[Mary Robinette] I think, actually, one of the things about that is that you’ve got the specific concrete detail, but you also have the character’s relationship to that detail. So, one of the examples that I think of is the difference between Star Wars and Space Balls. Both of them say this is science-fiction and they both have the same opening shot, which is ginormous ships scrolling through. But Space Balls, it goes on so long that it becomes comical. That tells you, “Oh, no no no. This…”

[Brandon] You’re going to laugh.

[Mary Robinette] You’re going to laugh all the way through this.

[Howard] Then there’s a bumper sticker on…

[Mary Robinette] There’s a bumper sticker.

[Howard] On the back of the spaceship.

[Mary Robinette] Just in case you missed how long it was going on.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Terminal Alliance.

[Howard] Yes. Terminal Alliance by Jim Hines. My family, we bought this book twice. I was on my way back from Cedar City, with Kellianna and I put on the audiobook of Terminal Alliance so we could listen to it. We got home and she said, “Are you going to listen to this in your office while you draw?” I said, “Maybe. But I’m not working yet.” She said, “Well, I want to keep going, and the reader is too slow. So do we have a copy of this book in print?” So we bought it in print. No regrets. No regrets. It’s a comedy about space janitors and zombie apocalypse. You know, that’s kind of all you need to know. If I say space janitors and zombie apocalypse, you have enough setting that I’ve telegraphed to you the tone of this thing from my friend Jim that you’re really going to enjoy.

[Mary Robinette] I’m just going to second that I enjoyed the heck out of this book, too.

[Howard] I think the cover was a Dan Dos Santos. I’m not sure. I love the cover. I love the cover.

[Brandon] So, kind of riffing off that, Howard, how do you indicate that there are comedic elements in your stories, and how do you indicate sometimes… Sometimes, Schlock Mercenary gets very serious. I feel like you use setting to distinguish these two quite well.

[Howard] There’s… Well, first of all, I need to establish that if you’re reading Schlock Mercenary and have been reading it for a while, if there isn’t a punchline or if things happen and there are no repercussions, there is no serious side of it, you’ll feel like I’ve broken some rules. That’s… We’ve talked in previous episodes about budget. So I have this currency that I have spent to get you to this point. That said, I try to begin every book with some sort of establishing shot, that will tell us this is science-fiction. I’m going to end the strip with a punchline, which, because of the beat, beat, punchline format of things will tell you very quickly we’re going to tell a lot of jokes. But I like to establish the scope of the story. In the most recent… I say most recent. When book 19 launched, I did a joke about prologues. We had a prologue in which an alien spaceship is flying and they’re saying, “There’s a star system ahead, do we need to change course?” “No, we’re going to fly through their cloud… Comet cloud, we should be fine.” “But anything…” “We’re big. Anything we nudge, those inner planets are going to have to deal with.” “Sure, they’re going to have to deal with it, but it just means millions of years.” 8 million years later, we have a little velociraptor with a telescope who looks kind of like Leonardo da Vinci, if he were a feathered velociraptor talking to another velociraptor who also has a similar sort of da Vinci-ish look who is building something. He’s saying, “Huh. How soon can your flying machine be ready?” That has told us this is going to be a tragic story about the ends of civilization, but you’re going to laugh.

[Brandon] Excellent.

[Howard] That was a very long-winded…

[Brandon] No, that’s great.

[Howard] Approach to it, but… I also made so much fun of prologues, and I was thinking of you the whole time.

[Brandon] Thank you very much. I’ll have you know that… 

[Margaret] I wanted to giggle at your description, but I didn’t want to mess up the audio.


[Brandon] I’ve restrained myself, and most of my books only have two now.


[Brandon] Way of Kings has four prologues.

[Mary Robinette] I know. I know. I’m just… I’m amazed at your restraint.

[Brandon] Yes. All right. So. Building off of that, let’s say you want to shift tones in your story, you know you’re going to do it. You’re going to be writing a comedic story that is going to get serious, or you’re going at it the other way, you’re going to write a serious story but you know you’re going to have some comedic elements. How do you indicate that from the beginning? Do you need to indicate that from the beginning?

[Howard] I think the second part of that question is the more important bit. If the surprise that people experience with a tonal shift that they weren’t expecting is your point, then you don’t need to telegraph it. If, however, you don’t want to alienate them… You know there’s a tonal shift, and you don’t want to alienate them, then you do need to telegraph it.

[Brandon] Okay. I would absolutely agree with that. Though, we’re talking specifically about using setting. Right? The methods of using setting. So, let’s in our last few minutes here, let’s give a few tips. What are things you’ve done using your setting to indicate your tone?

[Mary Robinette] So, I did this in Calculating Stars. Calculating Stars opens with a couple in the Poconos, and they’re having sexy fun times. Then I slam a meteor into the earth.

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] So… What I did with that, and I made very, very deliberate choices in that first page. The opening line is “Do you remember where you were when the meteor struck?” That tells you this is going to be a disaster story. Then, the

is “I was in the mountains with Nathaniel, and we were stargazing, by which I mean sex.”

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] Which gets a laugh. It tells you… Having those two things back to back tells you about the setting that we’re in… And, granted, I’m doing this in narration. It is a first-person character. But I’m using the setting there to tell you what this is going to be about. That you can expect a story in which we’re dealing with relationships, we’re dealing with disaster, and that there’s going to be some comedy. It’s not going to be disaster all the way down.

[Brandon] I often have trouble with first chapters. Not starting them. I’ve talked about this before in the podcast, though, that when I get done with the book, I feel like my first chapter no longer belongs with the book that I ended up writing. This is coming from someone who architects and outlines a ton. That first chapter, getting that tone right, can be a big deal for just kind of establishing how the whole story’s going to play out. I had to do this just with my most recent book, that will have just come out at this point about six months ago. Skyward. Where I wrote the first chapter, I even did readings from it. At the end, it was just not right. Even though when I rewrote it, it was basically the same events happening. I needed to make… They live in a cavern system underground, I needed to make the caverns a little more claustrophobic. I needed to make the stepping on the surface for the first time more full of wonder, because the idea of we as a people are escaping the caverns and getting into the skies, that’s the point of the story. It just… I find finishing my book and then going back and saying, “What was my book’s tone really about?” And “How can I hit this metaphorically in the first chapter?”

[Mary Robinette] I think that that’s a really good point, that… For me, a lot of times, it’s about going back in and finessing the specific physical details of the space. I have a story called Cerbo in Vitra ujo which is one of the true horror stories that I’ve written. When I wrote it initially, it read like it was going to be a teen drama. What I had to go back in and do was bring out… Even though I didn’t move the location, I shifted the… They’re in a conservatory on a space station, so there’s all of these plants around. But I made sure that there is like a broken rose, that there is a diseased rose. That there are elements there that are unsettling in order to indicate that that’s where we were going. It was about going back and adjusting the setting to match the tone.

[Brandon] So, our homework plays right into this idea. Which you have for us, Mary?

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So what I want you to do is I want you to write an opening. It can be taking an opening of something that you’re already working on or just starting from scratch. But I want you to write the first half page. In that first half page, I want you to hit three specific concrete details. I’m picking three as an arbitrary number, because I want you to actually really dig into this. But I watch to pick three specific concrete details that telegraph setting… That telegraph the tone. That telegraph what the mood is. These details are obviously your setting. So I want you to do that. Then I want you to write it again and telegraph a different mood.

[Brandon] Use, maybe, even the same dialogue, but use the setting to indicate a different tone. All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.