What You Can Learn about Setting from Classic Sitcoms

What You Can Learn about Setting from Classic Sitcoms

Giving your novel a strong sense of place is vital to doing your part to engage the readers without confusing or frustrating them. Setting is a big part of this (though not the whole enchilada — there is also social context and historic period), and I often find writing students and consulting clients erring on one of two extremes.

Giving your novel a strong sense of place is vital to doing your part to engage the readers without confusing or frustrating them. Setting is a big part of this (though not the whole enchilada — there is also social context and historic period), and I often find writing students and consulting clients erring on one of two extremes.

*Either: *Every scene is set in a different, elaborately-described place from the last. This leads to confusion (and possibly exhaustion and impatience) for the reader, because they have no sense of what they need to actually pay attention to for later and what’s just…there. Are the details of that forest in chapter 2 important? Will I ever be back in this castle again? Is there a reason for this character to be in this particular room versus the one she was in the last time I saw her? Who knows!

Or: There are few or no clues at all as to where the characters are in a scene. What’s in the room? Are they even in a room? Are there other people in th — ope, yes, there are, someone just materialized, what is happening? This all leads to the dreaded “brains in jars” syndrome. That is, characters are only their thoughts and words, with no grounding in the space-time continuum. No one seems to be in a place, in a body, at a time of day.

Everything aspect of writing a novel comes with its difficulties, and there are a lot of moving pieces to manage and deploy in the right balance. When you’re a newer writer, especially, there’s something to be said for keeping things simple until you have a handle on how to manage the arc and scope of a novel-length work. And whether you tend to overdo settings or underdo them, you can learn something from TV, especially classic sitcoms.

Your basic “live studio audience” sitcoms are performed and filmed on sets built inside studios vs. on location. This helps keep production expenses in check and helps the viewer feel at home — there’s a reliable and familiar container to hold the story of any given episode. The writers on the show don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every script.

Often, a show will have no more than two or three basic sets that are used episode to episode, and then a few other easily-understood sets (characters’ workplaces, restaurants, streets scenes) are also used regularly but not every episode.

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