Setting: How the masters use it

We’re looking at Setting this week. Here are some setting passages from some of the books I’ve read lately. Let’s see how the masters multi-task.

Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter

When I first came to the castle, many, many moons ago, I was awed by it, by the decor and the beauty and the richness of it all.  There are no rushes on the floor here, no straw embedded with lavender and basil to keep it sweet-smelling. The queen demanded carpets, rugs, runners, woven especially for her to tread upon, and so our footsteps are muted as we walk.

The walls behind the rich red and blue tapestries are gray stone, flexed with mica that flashes when the servants pull the hangings aside to wash the walls.  Gilt and gold adorn the antlered candelabras above my head; cushions are velvet and tasseled and replaced as soon as the pile is rubbed the wrong way.  Everything is faultless and pristine; everything is kept ordered and beautiful.  The roses in the tall crystal vases are all cut to the same length, all the exact same color and arranged the same way.  There is no room in this castle for things that are not perfect.

-Pg 2

To my ears, this passage multi-tasks by:

  • Revealing Character: The character comes from a place or a home that’s not as grand as the castle, a place with rushes and straw on the floors, and without servants.
  • Creating Conflict:  The castle itself provides a bit of conflict, in that she’s stuck in it.  Upcoming character conflict is also alluded to in that the queen is probably a source of conflict.  She “demands” things and seems to be very high maintenance, requiring total silence and the replacement of pillows rubbed the wrong way.
  • Creating Suspense:  “There is no room in this castle for things that are not perfect.”  I betcha our main character becomes imperfect.
  • Speaking to Theme:  Perfection vs. imperfection could be a theme.  Or possibly keeping up appearances.
  • Creating Limits:  Yes.  The world of the story is a castle.  The character never leaves it.
  • Evoking mood:  The mood I get from this is one of walking on egg-shells, of being on guard.
  • Grounding the Reader:  I feel grounded in the luxurious opulence of a well-groomed and pristine castle.
  • Guiding Reader to Feel:  I feel on guard, waiting for something imperfect to show up.
  • Crucible:  The castle is the crucible.  All the characters are forced to interact because they’re all stuck in the castle.
  • Vicarious Experience:  Maybe not in this passage so much, but the whole of the story delivers the experience of being a special, revered, and feared girl under the power of an evil queen.

Harlan Coben’s Caught

I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.

Yes, that sounds melodramatic and full of foreboding and I’m not big on either, and true, there was nothing menacing about the red door.  In fact, the door was beyond ordinary: wood and four-paneled, the kind of door you see standing guard in front of three out of every four suburban homes, with faded paint and a knocker at chest level no one ever used and a faux-brass knob.

But as I walked toward it, a distant streetlight barely illuminating my way, the dark opening yawning like a mouth ready to gobble me whole, the feeling of doom was unshakable.  …

The house was dark, not a single light on.  China warned me that would be the case.  The dwelling somehow seemed a little too cookie-cutter, a little too nondescript.  That bothered me for some reason. This house was also isolated at the tippy end of the cul-de-sac, hunkering down in the darkness as though fending off intruders.

-Opening Lines

Lots of multi-tasking going on here.

  • Revealing Character:  This place is new to the character, so the setting itself doesn’t say much about him, but his description of it suggests that he’s wary of the place, and he’s also the kind of guy that, for some reason, is still going to go in.
  • Creating Conflict:  Yes, the setting is making the character uncomfortable and unsure about his actions.
  • Creating Suspense:  Oh yeah.  Don’t you expect something really bad to happen right about now?
  • Speaking to Theme:  Perhaps, if the theme has something to do with isolation, or with things being other than they seem, too good to be true.  (Which it does.)
  • Creating Limits:  Not really, not in this passage anyway.  And if I recall correctly, the story takes place in New Jersey, but there’s some out-of-town travel, so not really over all either.
  • Evoking mood:  Yes, an ominous one.  Something bad’s going to happen.
  • Grounding the Reader:  Yup, I can see the red door clearly.  For me it’s under a poorly lit porch, one with a waist-high guard rail around the edge of it, even though that’s not mentioned.
  • Guiding Reader to Feel:  Worried.  I’m worried for his character.
  • Crucible:  Not really.  Not in this passage anyway.  Once he gets inside, however, the house creates a temporary crucible, making it hard for him to escape.
  • Vicarious Experience:  Sure, we’re experiencing what it’s like to see someplace scary and go in anyway.  Most of us probably wouldn’t.

Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

I wake up this morning to a thin blanket of white covering out front lawn. It isn’t even an inch, but in this part of Oregon a slight dusting brings everything to a standstill as the one snowplow in the county gets busy clearing the roads. It is wet water that drops from the sky–and drops and drops and drops–not the frozen kind.

It is enough to cancel school.

-Opening Lines

Here, it’s multi-tasking by:

  • Revealing Character:  She’s probably in school.  “And in a way, I suppose that’s true” kind of suggests she’s not too quick to come to decisions or agreements–which sets her (and us) up for her main story struggle: deciding whether to come out of the coma and live or to die.
  • Creating Conflict:  Definitely hinting at setting creating conflicting with “Everyone thinks it was because of the snow.”
  • Creating Suspense:  Yes, I’m in suspense, wondering what this “it” is.
  • Speaking to Theme:  A little bit, with the snow bringing “everything to a standstill,” which is kind of what happens to the main character’s life.  She then has to decide whether or not to start her life up again.
  • Creating Limits:  Hmm… I’m not seeing any.  You?
  • Evoking mood:  Melancholy comes to mind.
  • Grounding the Reader:  It’s morning in a rural county in Oregon during the winter.
  • Guiding Reader to Feel:  Concerned for the character… what is this “it”?  And maybe a kind of small-town easygoingness.  No school.  What shall we do?
  • Crucible:  Not really.
  • Vicarious Experience:  A bit, if you’ve never experienced an Oregon winter before.  They’re different from, say, a Chicago winter.

Well, that’s it for me.  What multi-tasking do you see in the passages above or in the stories you’re reading?  Tell us in the comments!


We’ll see what kind of settings we might come up with for the one-liners we’re working on.  See you then!

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