Pay Heed to Setting—
the Backdrop of Your Story
© 2008 Anna Furtado
When we start to write our story, the stage is nothing but black space. The characters are dressed in dark, nondescript clothing. We have no clue about time and place. But as the story unfolds, we get a sense of where the characters are located from the characters themselves. Our imagination may take over and supply us with surroundings - the time and place in which the story is set - identified as the setting. The absence of props won't deter us from imagining the story that is taking place in a living room, a park, or an insane asylum. The characters themselves may give us hints as to their location by their references - or we may discover it within the story itself. However we fashion it, our efforts can add or detract from a reader's enjoyment.
Remember that setting contributes to mood. Is the living room large, bright, and filled with expensive, yet comfortable furniture? Or is it in a small, run-down studio apartment with only a bed and a table? Is the weather in the park sunny and pleasantly warm? Uncomfortably hot and humid? Bleak and rainy? All this contributes to the mood of the story. And weather as setting can change from day to day, hour to hour, and scene to scene.
Setting is no more than physical surroundings that affect each character and give the writer the ability to show reactions to help to advance the plot. A high-tech geek plunked down on a rural farm with little modern-day technology would not react the same way as a person who grew up on that farm. The geek would feel alien in a rural setting. The farmer would feel right at home. Of course, the farmer might feel uncomfortable and intimidated if the geek tried to impose those technological advances on him. Such impositions can cause a subtle change in the setting.
How much does setting influence a character? Is he oppressed by his surroundings? Does she love where she lives? Is the weather, the season, the particular storm a problem?
Setting can almost become another "character" against which others must react. If it starts to rain, the protagonist removes her coat to cover her head to better protect herself from the driving storm. If it's hot, she may wipe her brow, utter a curse, and remove her jacket in an effort to cool down.
Descriptions of setting can start in a particular physical location, going right to left or left to right of the character, moving across the field of view. Top to bottom or bottom to top is also a way to describe the setting. Or the characters' immediate area can be described by moving outward from her or his location. Setting is best described, however, when interspersed with the characters' reactions to their surroundings rather than writing down a laundry list of blue sky, white puffy clouds, green trees, dried up grass, and hot cement. Instead, have the characters observe what is happening around them and incorporate it into their dialog or inner reflections, as well as physical reactions.
When doing this, however, be careful not to distract from the main point of a particular scene or chapter. By being subtle with setting description, you'll make the reader's imagination blossom with more than just your characters on a blackened stage. The potentially dull, stifling setting will become more alive for the reader. If the writer sets her characters in some park with a few trees, some grass, and a bench or two, she is missing out on great potential. Weather and temperature can set a great mood. Other events happening nearby can make for great opportunities to reveal more about the characters. Do screaming children annoy? Does laughter from some Frisbee players bring back fond memories? What emotions do a pair of lovers kissing evoke?
Of course, descriptions should be sprinkled judiciously. Long paragraphs of setting can quickly become boring and tedious. Strike a good balance, making description part of the story. Rather than saying, "The day was warm," try "It would be another scorcher. She shielded her eyes as she looked up at the wispy clouds. They certainly wouldn't produce any rain to relieve the oppressive heat." In addition, the dusty gray bushes can be observed and the character can react to them. The character might have some thoughts about the wilted flowers she observes, reminding her of something in her own life. Wilted flowers might make her sad or remind her that she has forgotten to water her houseplants again. From this we might learn that she is suffering the loss of a loved one, or simply that she has no green thumb.
When you bring a reader into a setting, notice what the particular character might notice. Remember that characters probably won't notice what they would find ordinary, but they will notice and remark about the extraordinary. My spice vendor in The Heart's Desire wouldn't notice the everyday smells in her herbal shop, but she did notice when, after an absence from the shop, a new shipment of a certain spice had arrived because the "ordinary" odors had changed to something striking to her.
Use strong active words to describe a setting. It's not just warm - the heat is oppressive. Use all the character's senses. What does a sweltering hot day smell like, feel like, taste like, look like? What sounds are different - air conditioners, fans, train whistles, no warbling birds?
Be sure to fit the type and amount of description to the style of story. In an action-thriller, with the killer closing in on the heroine as she escapes through the woods, she wouldn't stop to think about how lovely and stately the redwoods trees are. However, in a brooding, psychological thriller, someone creeping through an abandoned house might walk slowly and carefully, noticing every dimly lit object, listening for noises, smelling odors, eyes darting from place to place, straining to see what might be lurking.
If writing description doesn't come naturally to you, or you have difficulty figuring out where it should go or how much to put into the story, don't allow it to stop you from writing. Skip over it. Carry on. Write the meat of your story. You can always go back later and flesh out your settings. As you get to know your characters, you will better know how they will react in each one, which can only help when you put in the details of their surroundings.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.
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