Thursday, April 17, 2008

Setting: Beyond A Place

Readers want to have a sense of place instead of having infamous floating head conversations. Setting lends authenticity and a sense of place, but it is more than naming a the city or state or describing a room or building. Setting includes weather, month, year, time of day. An author can accomplish this task in one line. On the Miami shoreline, Edna looked into the stormy May sky and watched the late afternoon sun sink behind rippling water. Lines like this provides the reader with basic information needed for each scene.

Sometimes the information is provided even more simply. The next day, Edna curled her feet beneath her on the sofa and forced herself to focus on the vacation brochure. Notice this provides information but it does so much more. It raises questions—a key way to hook the reader.

Enhancing Characterization and Mood
Even more dramatic, setting can create a mood and enhance characterization. In fact, setting is most effective when it is used for this purpose, another method that causes readers to ask questions. In an excerpt from my novel, Upon A Midnight Clear, the reader can not only gain a sense of place, but the setting sets the tone or mood of the story.

Callie regarded her surroundings as she slid the coat from her shoulders. She stood in a wide hallway graced by a broad, curved staircase and a sparkling crystal chandelier. An oriental carpet covered the floor, stretching the length of the entry.
Two sets of double doors stood closed on the right, and on the left, three more sets of French doors hid the rooms’ interiors, leaving Callie with a sense of foreboding. Were the doors holding something in? Or keeping something out?

Again the readers are left curious and questioning. Notice how the next example sets the scene but allows the reader inside the character to experience her emotion.

Outside, the cool wind whipped against her and sent a shiver down her back. The wind or fear? She climbed into the car, turned on the lights, and backed out of the driveway. The night lay dark over the landscape, the moon hidden behind a heavy bank of clouds. Too soon for snow, she thought. Yet, the dark, dire sky matched the feeling inside her.

Here setting not only gives the reader a sense of place and an awareness of the character’s emotion, but it also creates an ominous mood and moves the plot along by leaving the reader with questions.

Using setting to capture characterization is effective. In this paragraph, notice the vivid image of the setting but how well it adds to Francie’s characterization.

Francie adjusted the baby carrier on her shoulders and rang the bell. While waiting, she studied a delicate spider web that spanned two vertical shafts of the porch’s wrought iron railing. The spider was still at work and Francie was captured by the beauty of the iridescent threads glinting in the afternoon sunlight. Beautiful, yet distressing. She felt trapped in a web as intricate and lovely as the spider’s.

Francine is trapped and we see the discepancy of her discription. How can being trapped be compared to something intricate and lovely? This leaves readers asking questions. . .and they are hooked.

Finding the Right Setting
Every location can provide the perfect backdrop for certain stories—large cities and small towns, the wintry cold of Minnesota or the sandy beaches of Jamaica. The author must select the location that will best advance the story. Readers are drawn to exotic places and foreign countries but an author can write a better novel if he or she has first hand experience in a similar location.

Small towns lend themselves to friendly neighbors and eccentric characters who pop in and out of the story as they are needed. A suspense might find more opportunities for excitement on a lonely island or in the backwoods. But a reader can make even a familiar location interesting and unique by the perspective. Think of someone’s own home at night in the dark. The familiar becomes strangely unfamiliar. Shadows cause the person to jump or cry out. How the author treats any setting is the key to good writing.

Setting As Character
Setting not only enhances characterization but setting can be a character in the story. If you think of classic westerns where the rugged landscape becomes as important as the rugged cowboys, or think of Jack London’s novel, Call of the Wild, where the setting becomes the enemy and wins. Setting tends to mold and shape characters and often sets up inevitable consequences such as in the story ideas mentioned above.

But this is so even in a small town where gossip grows like fungus and fear of big city life can result in set values for the community and fear of the big city evils. Characters are products of the settings in which they are placed. They begin to think in the style of their social setting, their values are formed and their behavior is created. Change the setting and the story may not work in another location.

Settings set up expectations because of its history and its population. Some settings are important in a novel set in the fashion world and other settings work for a rugged outdoor adventure story. The dangers in both of these settings are different but are alive and influential.

Avoid Common Scene Locations
Writers have a tendency to place their characters into the same settings. Sitting around a table eating a meal can be found in most novels, perhaps because meals are often the main times families get together to hold conversation. Another common scene is riding in a car. It’s a time when the character thinks about what happened or plans their next course of action. Nothing is wrong with these locations, but as you write, try to find new and unique places to place your characters. Or if they are in the kitchen, have the heroine do dishes rather than sitting at the table eating a meal. Be creative—tobogganing, riding on a carousel, sitting in a canoe, riding in an elevator, hiding in a pantry. Surprise your readers with original locations.

Avoid talking heads but establish each scene by letting the reader know time and place as well as how much time has past since the last scene. Use the scene to enhance mood or the character’s emotions. Look for settings that come alive as a unique character of its own. If you accomplish this, you will have mastered using setting to not only create a sense of place but a story element that catches readers and holds on.


Kristi Holl said...

Thank you for a great post! Reading your blog is like going to a writing workshop. Lotsa meat!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kristi - Thanks so much. I'm pleased that the blog is helpful. It takes time but I hope to keep it up. I'll have problems once I start traveling. I teach writing across the country and it's harder to be on-line in some settings.

Wishing you the best,

Kristina said...

Hi Gail,

Reading your blog is like attending a writing workshop. I'm so thankful for your help.

I think setting is important too. It enhances the story. Whenever I read a novel with a great setting, I feel as though I'm part of the story.

I'm looking forward to the next posting.

Thanks again.