Defining Setting: Part 2

We’re looking at Setting this week. The tool post ran long so I broke it up into two.  The first part was posted yesterday.  You can find it here.

Continued from yesterday: the multitasking that setting can do

6. Setting can evoke a mood.

“Carefully constructed setting details instruct the reader how to feel,” says Ms. Morrell.

“You can reinforce the mood and action with your choice of setting, or work against it,” says Ansen Dibell.

When conveying mood, Mr. Bickham suggests you “think about the following generalized questions, all of which are closely linked:

  • How do you want the reader to feel while experiencing the story?
  • What is the general mood you hope to convey from the setting?
  • How do your character’s emotions color what he sees?
  • What setting details impact both the character’s feelings and general mood of the story?”

7. Setting can ground the reader.

“We humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings,” says Mr. Roerden. “A story that neglects to instill a sense of place leaves readers feeling unsettled and dis-oriented.  Make one editing pass through your manuscript specifically to check that each scene establishes setting right away.  This does not mean beginning each scene with a full-blown description; it means letting readers have a quick, general sense of where the action is taking place.”

8. Setting can help the reader suspend disbelief.

“If you’ve created an environment that a reader can see, hear, and experience, he’ll believe in the actions that happen in a story,” says Ms. Morrell.

9. Setting often provides the Crucible.

“Every story needs what is called a crucible or cauldron,” says Ms. Morrell, “a predicament coupled with a place where the main characters are forced together, where the drama simmers, sometimes sputters, often boils over.  The cauldron is the vessel that holds the story–part bonding principle, part pressure cooker.”

10. Setting can be its own Selling Point.

Setting is an opportunity to make “virtually any story better, even stories in which setting, in a more obvious context, isn’t critical,” says Mr. Brooks.  When setting is optimized, it can give the reader a “vicarious experience, one of the major underlying story forces that impart power, weight, and impact to [stories]. … Vicarious experience is delivered either through setting or through social, cultural, or relational dynamics. By definition, it means transporting the reader to a place, time, or situation that

  • they can’t or probably won’t ever experience in real life.
  • is inherently exciting, curious, dangerous, titillating, or rewarding.
  • is forbidden and/or impossible.
  • is inherently compelling for some other reason; for instance, it’s a true-life event.”

“Just add ‘What would it be like…?’ to the beginning of your setting or situation, and you’re already delving into vicarious experience,” says Mr. Books.

Multi-tasking setting sounds fun, yah? Are you as eager to try this as I am?

Techniques for doling out descriptions of setting

So you’ve got your unique and meaningful setting details all picked out.  Now you’ve gotta make sure the reader doesn’t skip ’em.  How do you do that?

1. Filter the setting through your point-of-view character.

“It’s important to remember that place can and should be filtered through a specific character’s emotions, impressions, viewpoint, and focus,” says Ms. Buckham.

“The unique way in which each one sees what is around him is how the setting itself becomes a character in the story,” says Mr. Maass.  It’s “not just about details, or even coupling them with emotions; the [setting is] also enhanced by infusing a character with strong opinions about both the details and emotions.”

2. Thread the setting throughout the action.

“As in all kinds of description, description of setting comes alive when shown in a state of activity,” says Ms. McClanahan.

“It is usually better to dole out these descriptive moments throughout a scene, between more active moments,” says Mr. Obstfeld. One technique is to ask or imply a question, and then place the setting description “between the question and answer.  This insures that the reader is paying more attention to the description because [you’ve] heightened his awareness by asking an important question. They are more focused on the setting description.  Plus [you’ve] heightened the suspense by delaying the answer.”

So “weave description into your action,” says Mr. Roerden, “and present it in a sequence that your viewpoint character would logically experience.”

3. Avoid Clumping.

“Clumping occurs when a writer unloads the entire description in one section of the scene,” says Mr. Obstfeld. “To avoid clumping, find the right place in the scene to give the reader the descriptions, and, remember, you don’t have to give everything all at once.”

Okay, but how much setting description should I write?

“A large part of what readers skim, if not skip entirely, is scenery. Setting. Weather,” says Ms. Cron. “Why? Because stories are about people, the things that happen to them, and how they react to it. And while setting is where those things take place, so of course it’s vitally important, merely describing the scenery, the town, the weather–regardless of how well written or how interesting it might be in and of itself–stops a story dead in its tracks.”

So “how much setting description is enough? The answer is simple,” says Mr. Obstfeld:  “enough to achieve your goal, but not so much as to detract from the other elements of the scene.”

“The level of setting detail necessary in your story depends on its complexity,” says Ms. Morrell.  “Contemporary readers are sophisticated and don’t need every nook and cranny explored, unless the writer has a specific purpose in doing so.”

Going Deep with Setting

Want more?  Who knew there was so much to know about setting?  Here are some processes for…

1. Making your setting meaningful.

“Making setting a character isn’t really about animating that locale,” says Mr. Maass. “It is a matter of you building a history for it, making big things happen there, giving characters strong feelings about it, and, in their minds, making it a place that is magical. That, in turn, brings it to life in the readers’ minds.”

Here’s one of Mr. Maass’ processes for making setting meaningful:

  • Step 1:  In the world of your novel, select a place of significance, or that you wish to make significant.
  • Step 2:  What has already happened here?  Note one or more past events associated with this place that people remember.
  • Step 3: In what way is this place mysterious or magical?  Or, possibly, what makes it completely ordinary?
  • Step 4:  What is your protagonist’s personal connection to this place? Write it out.  Make it specific.  How was this place seminal in her personal history?  What does she love about this place?  Why is she afraid of this place?  What stands out about this place?  What makes it different from any other place like it?
  • Step 5:  Does an important plot event occur at this place?  Find a second event that can occur here too.
  • Step 6:  Sorry if this sounds obvious… incorporate the above results into your manuscript–right now.

2.  Making your setting emotional.

“How does your setting make people feel?  That is the key, not how a place looks but its psychological effect on the characters in your novel,” says Mr. Maass.  “It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it.  Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel.”

Mr. Maass gives us two more processes for conveying the emotion of setting:

Connecting Character to Place

  • Step 1:  Select a setting in your novel. Note details that are particular to it. Include what is obvious but also include details that tourists would miss and only natives would see.
  • Step 2:  How does your protagonist feel about this place?  Go beyond the obvious emotions of nostalgia, bitterness, and a sense of “connection.”  Explore specific emotions tied to special times and personal corners of this place.
  • Step 3:  Weave details and emotions together in a passage about this place. Add this to your manuscript.

Changing the Landscape

  • Step 1:  Pick an important setting in your story. Choose a moment when your protagonist or another point-of-view character is there. Using specific details and emotions, create that character’s sense of this place following the steps above.
  • Step 2:  Bring that character back to this place one week, or one year, later. Again, follow the steps above.”

3.  Making your setting ominous.

This process comes from Mr. Bell:

  1. Write a page of straight description of your immediate setting [or any setting].
  2. Now make up a character alone, in trouble, in that setting, and write a couple of paragraphs where the setting, not another character, adds to the conflict…. What you’re doing is training your mind to be on the lookout for ominous locations, which are anywhere you choose.

Resources, Tips, and Tricks

World-building enthusiasts everywhere seem to use the SFWA Worldbuilding Questions.  If you’ve never seen them, check it out.

For setting inspiration, check out travel books, travel blogs, travel memoirs, travel websites…

“For a strong sense of how people saw historical eras in which they lived, check out contemporaneous essays, editorials, and speeches,” says Mr. Maass.

“Find visuals that represent your setting, either literally…or symbolically,” says Laura Whitcomb.  Hang ’em up around your workspace.

“Try drawing a map of a place in your memory (or a place that exists only in your imagination),” says Ms. McClanahan.  “Mark entrances and exits, furniture and props, flora and fauna. Place an x where certain characters might show up or where particular events might take place. … Look for a place where things can go wrong, and position your character there.  The place might be physically threatening…. Or it might be a setting that invites psychological danger…. Dangerous places suggest trouble. And trouble is one of the keys to compelling stories.”

To make sure setting is multi-tasking in your manuscript, “highlight in yellow each line [of setting] that is neutral in description–that is, where the description is not adding to the tone you’re after,” says Mr. Bell. “Highlight in red every passage that does ‘double duty,’ that sets up a feeling or tone of conflict as well as describes. Eliminate or change every passage in yellow until there are only passages in red.”

Last Bits of Advice

“Your setting needs to be so tightly bound with your story that they become inseparable,” says Ms. Whitcomb. Mr. McKee agrees:   “There is no such thing as a portable story. An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time.”

“Be ready to think twice, try and discard, until everything seems to be working together in one seemingly inevitable whole with nothing extra and nothing missing,” says Ms. Dibell.

Because “the source of all cliches can be traced to one thing and one thing alone,” says Mr. McKee.  “The writer does not know the world of his story.”

Best Books on Setting

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  How do you make the most of your backstory?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, on Wednesday

We’ll look at how the masters make the most of setting.  See you then!


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