I have a confession to make: The setting in my work in progress is virtually absent. I recently shared a sample from the rough draft of a scene, and it was described as characters acting in front of a green screen. It stung a little, but I could see that the comment was spot on. How fascinating that I was so focused on what my characters were saying and doing, but not where they were or what objects happened to be in the vicinity.
As I looked more closely at my draft, I realized that I had a basic idea of the place and time my story occupies, but I really hadn’t immersed myself in it; I didn’t know it like I do my own home, and as a result, it wasn’t on my radar as I wrote. I realized that I need to collect pictures, draw floor plans and maps, do some freewriting, and get to know the place better. But I also wanted to get to know the mechanics of setting better, and I began to study it more deeply (read: obsessively). The setting provides the backdrop for a story; I knew that much, but it can do so much more. It can support characterization, set the mood, affect pace and tension, emphasize the theme, and that’s just scratching the surface. Here are some of the basics I’ve learned so far.
Use specific and concrete details. The set pieces of a scene and the surrounding elements are rich details that help a reader sink into the story (and also, I suspect, help the author do the same). When describing the weather, you don’t want to say it was hot. Rather, show the reader the distorted air above the pavement, dogs panting with tongues lolling out of their mouths, or your character breaking into a sweat within moments of exiting her home in shorts and a tank top. Those details make the setting more alive.
Use all of the senses. We are such visual beings and the reader should be able to picture the setting in her mind. But we have other senses that, when included, create an experience rather than just an image. Brain scans reveal that reading description involving the senses creates activity in the parts of the brain that process real sensations, as well as language centers. The reader experiences the story. Provide vivid pictures of what your characters see, but don’t forget that they can hear, smell, touch, taste, and feel.
In my exploration, I stumbled upon these opening lines from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, a novel about a murderer motivated by the smell of his victims.
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and timorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentices as did the master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.
This type of description wouldn’t work in every story, but is perfect for the novel of a murderer motivated by scent and shows you what is possible with setting. This olfactory stroll through eighteenth century France helps the reader to step firmly into that time when life smelled quite differently than it does today and into the overwhelmed mind of a man ruled by his obsessively discerning sense of smell.
Filter your setting through your point of view character. What each character notices will be different from other characters, and those details help your reader inhabit and experience her world as she does, rather than just reading about it. For example, a person who grew up in a rural village will experience New York City in a different way than a native. A botanist might think of the names of species of plants as she walks through a neighborhood instead of merely noticing that an arrangement is aesthetically pleasing. Presenting specific and telling details through your POV character’s frame of reference can help the reader get to know the setting and the character better.
Weave in the details. Frontloading (in which you take several sentences or a paragraph to set the stage) is one method of setting the scene, but you need to keep your language tight and vivid so it doesn’t drag. The better practice is to weave the details into the scene. Have your characters interact with the objects where they are, have them look outside and notice the sun going down. The setting is part of the story, not something apart.
Do you struggle with the setting? Have you found helpful ways to craft a setting worthy of your characters and plot? We invite you to share your challenges and successes in the comments below. If you liked this post and want more, be sure to sign up for the Captain’s Blog: Craft so you won’t miss any posts.