Deborah Jackson

Friday, August 05, 2011

Setting—How to Paint the Quintessential Backdrop

Characters shape the story, but setting places you there, as a reader, in the midst of blue-white glaciers or spitting pits of lava. I could never forget seeing the barracuda while snorkeling, lurking beneath the surface of a turquoise ocean, framed in a grotto with a coral gateway. Its long narrow snout seemed magnified beneath the water, along with a precise row of jagged teeth, grinning, or contemplating whether I would make a nourishing snack. Can you picture it?

Setting is a physical place and time. It is intimately interconnected with your character or characters. Can you think of examples of settings that you found unforgettable? What was it about the writing that made the setting so memorable, so real?

Describing simply copies what is seen. Some budding writers tend to include everything, as a visual. But that would bore your readers to tears. Describing includes everything witnessed in an attempt to elicit emotions by filling in every blank spot on a canvas. But it doesn't work.

"Setting selects details that are essential and places only them on the page. Setting is intentional and careful, choosing the details that will lead to a deliberate response."

                                                                       —R. Andrew Wilson, Write Like Hemingway

The small boys came early to the hanging.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.

                                                                    —Ken Follet, The Pillars of the Earth

What emotion does this elicit?

Setting certainly incorporates location, landscape, but its more than that. It's a crucial part of the story including aspects of geography, characters daily activities, and the time and atmosphere in which the characters live.

It also includes action! Think of setting in terms of film production. The story unfolds and the combination of background and action within the movie creates drama. Setting is alive, it moves!

In Ken Follet's excerpt, boys are moving through the snow and there is no activity yet in the village. As readers, we sense both the movement and the silence. We understand that this is an earlier time period, with the word choice of "hovels" and the description of wooden huts, along with the mention of hanging and gallows. We get a clear sense in just one paragraph of the time period, the place and the atmosphere.

It is your job, as a writer, to bring your characters to life as part of their surroundings.

"Overloading a scene with static description can pull away from the narrative. Move through the scene in three-dimensional space, describing how people interact with it and how parts of the environment interact with each other."

                                                                —R. Andrew Wilson, Write Like Hemingway

Have you read the Robert Jordan series? I absolutely loved the books, loved them, at first. But as the series progressed each book became bulkier, filled with extraneous characters and such an abundance of description it bogged the story down. I finally put the series down. I never read another book after Eight. And occasionally I felt like screaming "get on the with story" as I read the last four books. The imaginative world and intriguing beginning kept pulling me forward, but the static description ended my journey. Always remember the reader, and don't get caught up in your love of words and your own ability to paint a glorious picture with them. Never forget the story.

To create an effective setting, it begins with careful observation, but you also need an understanding of how tapping into the senses creates emotions in your readers. Simply by how the scene is described, the reader is given a sense of awe, pain, joy, fear or other strong emotions.

Description with Dialogue and Action:

And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer to the cliff on which it stood.

‘Heads down!’ yelled Hagrid as the first boats reached the cliff; they all bent their heads and the little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy which hid a wide opening in the cliff face. They were carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbour, where they clambered out on to the rocks and pebbles.

                                                —J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Does this description of the castle at Hogwarts evoke a sense of awe and wonderment? Do the children seem like ants in its presence?

Description and Action:

When I landed on the top of a lamppost in the London dusk it was peeing with rain. This was just my luck. I had taken the form of a blackbird, a sprightly fellow with a bright yellow beak and jet-black plumage. Within seconds I was as bedraggled a fowl as ever hunched its wings in Hampstead. Flicking my head from side to side , I spied a large beech tree. Leaves moldered at its foot—it had already been stripped clean by the November winds—but the thick sprouting of its branches offered some protection from the wet. I flew over it, passing above a lone car that purred its way along the wide suburban street. Behind high walls and the evergreen foliage of their gardens, the ugly white facades of several sizeable villas shone through the dark like the faces of the dead.

                                                                   —Jonathon Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand

Don't you feel as drenched as the blackbird? Can you picture a gloomy November day in London? Does it heap on your shoulders a rather oppressive feeling?

Another thing to consider is that setting must enhance the conflict. Not only is it connected to your characters, but also to plot.

Think of Moby Dick vs Captain Ahab on the high seas. The Summoning takes place in a half-way house for the mentally challenged—ideally suited for conflict and relates directly to the protagonist's problem. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses Spain in the arena of bullfighting and nightclubs with the occasional drunken brawl.

Another way to enhance conflict is to use confined spaces. In Ice Tomb, the settings include a moon base, small, prefab buildings in Antarctica, and a tunnel beneath the ice sheet. Sinkhole takes place in an extremely dangerous network of caves.

Style and structure are very important to keep the reader glued to the page. Remember to describe your world without making it sound like a grocery list. As shown in the examples above, mix in action, dialogue, and description. Vary sentence length. Too many short sentences will make it sound juvenile, but action sequences work well with short sentences. As often as possible, without becoming tedious, use all the senses.

The little Bed and Breakfast just outside of Hilo on the active island. She could still see the lush tropical flowers in brilliant hues of lavender and pink, crimson and orange, swaying in the warm sun-drenched breeze. Erica walked through the garden of cream and butter orchids and tangerine bromeliads to the gently swaying hammock where David was sleeping, tied between two spiked palm trees. A scarlet Apapane was twittering near his head. The little honeycreeper kept brushing his nose with its tail feathers as it sipped nectar from an o hi’a-lelua, a pretty purple cluster flower. He absently twitched and dusted his hand over his face, still caught in the tight embrace of dreams.

                                                                      —Deborah Jackson, Ice Tomb

Notice how the above paragraph uses sight, touch, sound, and taste (to a certain degree).

You may have heard this quite often, but it seems the most difficult thing for some writers to grasp. Use the "true" word whenever possible. Details have to be specific and concrete—not just a bird, which bird and how does it match the surroundings (Hawaii). It will give your reader an impression of the uniqueness of your setting. But it also depends on point of view (POV). If your character doesn't possess the knowledge to describe with correct terms, use similes or metaphors. I was using the word gumbo limbo for a tree in Florida, then realized my character wouldn't know this term so I called it a pretzel-shaped tree.

Some writers tend to include so few details, the work is dull and unimaginative. Some tend to overcompensate with an obese piece of work that loses sight of the story. Include just enough details to give a sense of place, elicit an emotion and then let the reader's imagination take over. That's why I don't emphasize the physical description of characters to any great extent, because it robs the reader of the opportunity to imagine the character.

"Telling" details, no more.

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

—Stephen King, On Writing

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