As I’m neck-deep in editing lately, I’ve discovered one of my greatest weaknesses as a writer is creating any sense of setting. I really like action, momentum, consequences, and tend to focus on these aspects of the story because I’m confident in my ability to properly convey them. But setting? Not so much. I leave readers with the impression that everything is happening on a two-dimensional plane, and while the action is captivating, there’s nothing to give the reader her bearings or set the tone for the scenes or the story as a whole. With all these problems, I’ve decided to focus this week’s edits on the setting of my novel, and want to share a bit about what I’ve learned.
It Sets the Mood
Setting involves those parts of a story that provide the narrative’s backdrop, both the time and the physical location the events of the story occur within. While these elements offer the reader a realistic grip on the protagonist’s world, setting isn’t simply a navigational tool for the reader; setting is also responsible for establishing the mood of the story and leaving readers with a lasting feeling about the narrative in its entirety.
Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that is is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. // E.L. Doctorow
This is important because it is easy to simplify setting as those few paragraphs of description at the start of each chapter, but this view overlooks its value to the storytelling process. Setting is what keeps books alive in readers’ hearts long after they’ve shelved them as it transmits the sensations of the protagonist’s world. For a great example, look to the incredible world of Harry Potter built by J.K. Rowling. There’s no denying the impact Rowling’s series has had and continues to have on the world, as her readers and fans still long to experience the world of Harry Potter and relive its magic years after the release of the final book. Or look to Cormac McCarthy’s dry and treacherous and bloody representations of the border of Mexico and the southern United States. Or Narnia and Dickens’ London. Those books upon remembering them conjure specific gut feelings and emotions within their readers that extend beyond knowing what the worlds look like; readers know and feel and remember what the worlds are like.
It’s a Driving Force
Even in character-driven novels, a good setting works as its own force in the story, sometimes for and sometimes against the protagonist. In Harry Potter, secrets and surprises lie around every corner that sometimes get Harry into trouble (as when the talking paintings on the wall serve him up to Snape) and sometimes help his quests (such as the Weasley twins’ secret passages to and from the castle and, of course, the Room of Requirement). Even though Harry Potter is not ultimately about Hogwarts, Rowling has woven the setting of Hogwarts Castle into the plot to limit or expand Harry’s options, influence his choices, and keep the story moving.
Memorable setting, like Hogwarts, impacts the protagonist in some way, whether it serves as a barrier to a protagonist’s goals or as an alley to his efforts. This is why paragraphs of description on the old building the little girl enters to meet her new foster parents, or the way the old man’s house looked as ashes after invaders burned his town, are not effective at conveying setting, even if the paragraphs are beautifully rendered. Endless descriptive writing (with far too many adjectives) about surroundings pictures the world as merely a plastic background the narrative sits upon rather than a pulsing, breathing item within it. Of course, a small amount of description is necessary to bring the world to life, and what one reader thinks is too much description another will find too sparse. But if your story upon reading it grinds to a halt in places and even you, the writer, begin itching for something else to pick up, you might be trying to hard to tell your readers what the world is like rather than allowing the world’s actions, power, and purpose reveal its nature.
Concise and Concrete
They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. // Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Incorporating setting into dialogue and actions can keep that descriptive writing in check while still establishing a sense of the place. A character pointing out necessary and important details in conversation with a friend provides setting concisely, offering the important parts and leaving the rest for the reader to construct. McCarthy is a master of fusing setting with action, as characters often kick dust off their boots as they enter a home; or shield their eyes against the sun as they meet menacing strangers; or chase horses trailing soaked reins over a running creek. These brief glimpses of concrete detail not only help his readers picture the world but also leave an impression of it: it’s sweltering and seedy; it’s precarious; it’s gritty and tough and you’d better wear your big-boy pants.
In order to accomplish this, you have to think about where each scene occurs and what kinds of details reveal the setting to the reader. What words or people or images show the protagonist in a restaurant? A greenbelt? The Arctic? Then think about how you want the setting to seem and what impression you want to give the reader of the place. Is the doctor’s office cheery and pleasant or is it a suspicious place? Are the woods behind the new friend’s backyard peaceful or haunting? When you realize that setting serves a larger purpose to storytelling than simply existing as the place your protagonist happens to occupy, and when you understand its purpose to your story specifically, you will learn more and more how to pin down a great mess of setting with a few sharp details.
Or that’s the idea anyway. Here’s to hoping we all get there sooner than later.
NOW TELL ME // What elements do you struggle with when it comes to writing? How do you deal with your writing weaknesses? Give me your best advice!