How about we shake things up a smidgen?
In the interest of naked truth and integrity: I’m sharing this post for two reasons, (1) to provide fellow working writers with vital writing knowledge to help them with their own burgeoning journeys, and (2) to earn more hits and boost my blog situation with the big boys at the Search Engine Department, in the hope of continuing my slow steady journey up the writing ladder.
As writers, you are smart enough to know why setting is crucial to a novel, so let’s skip the usual throat-clearing. The 7 Keys to crafting masterful settings are as follows:
Okay, let’s ‘elucidate’. (Hey, what’s the point in being a writer if you’re not going to flaunt your extensive vocabulary every once in a while? Have some fun!)
WHERE: Obviously your readers need to know where your scene is taking place. Is it on top of a mountain or in a cozy little kitchen? If it’s a familiar place (as in, you’ve already described it earlier in the narrative) then simply mention it in passing to situate the reader in the kitchen again, maybe add a peripheral detail overlooked earlier if it is relevant to this particular scene—as in, creepy Uncle Jethro has been corpsified and is now occupying 12 square feet of floor space with a pool of tacky blood reflecting the spider-webbed ceiling.
WHEN: Less obviously, your readers need to know the time of day and year in which the setting is being seen. Seasons and lighting affect mood and physical settings. In summer, doors swell and get stuck. In winter, drafts come barging through houses, unexpectedly and effectively adding nuance to setting. What time of day is it? Sunlight and streetlamps and living room shades throw different shadows across the setting, lending at times clarity or creepiness. If the setting is outside, the ‘time’ of year and day is even more important.
Temperature, humidity, wind, rain, snow, aromas and stenches are all profoundly important to establishing successful and memorable settings. These items all deeply affect the characters in the scene. If you don’t believe me, just check out Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.
WHO: Speaking of the characters in the setting, it is important to clearly delineate all the players. Just as trees boasting brilliant autumnal foliage in the background lend color, so secondary characters are essentially backdrop to any setting; a part of it if only apart from it. Seemingly unimportant Joe Blow lurking in the shadows or hiding in the crowd may just be the as-yet unrevealed villain. And of course, the main characters occupying space in the setting are just as important as the physical location and/or weather. A riveting character can reveal as much about your MC as can your MC’s response to any particular setting.
SMALL DETAILS: The devil is in the details—especially if they’re possessed. Read masters like Mervyn Peake, J.K. Rowling and Anne Rice to appreciate how small details can easily elevate settings from hum-drum fiction to eye-popping realism. Such detail can suspend reader disbelief.
BEWARE the dreaded static description of lesser fantasists. Here’s an example of a static description of a setting, as written by a self-published writer:
‘The lush, planted areas of the compound were lavishly appointed. The beachside pool deck’s verdant landscaping was circled with the flicker of tiki torches – placed there for the big event that was just getting underway. An eighteen-piece mariachi band in full regalia had assembled by the massive palapa over the hotel-sized outdoor pool bar.’
Notice how, at first it seems like we have detail, but a closer reading reveals that nothing is actually described in detail. The writer employs vague adjectives and thinks this conveys detail, when in reality all it displays is a lack of imagination and overuse of a pet thesaurus. Also, nothing is active. His writing uses dead adverbs and bleeds barefaced clichés. We can see the setting, sure, but it is static.
The following is a description written by a master of the English language, Mervyn Peake, from his ‘lavish’ Gormenghast series. Here he describes the Hall of Bright Carvings:
‘Standing immobile throughout the day, these vivid objects, with their fantastic shadows on the wall behind them shifting and elongating hour by hour with the sun’s rotation, exuded a kind of darkness for all their colour. The air between them was turgid with contempt and jealousy. The craftsmen stood about like beggars, their families clustered in silent groups. They were uncouth and prematurely aged. All radiance gone.’
Notice how Peake’s adjectives and adverbs pop. They aren’t simply thrown in there, but are placed expertly within to lend mood to the setting. Even the air seems alive—with jealousy. Notice also how Peake masterfully illustrates the effects of the sun, so that the setting changes, and observe how he incorporates secondary characters as scene props, who supplement the sun and shadows and darkness in developing a tone for the scene.
In the first example everything is stationary, observed at a distance. In Peake’s passage everything is alive and part of the world; you can almost feel the atmosphere, smell the dust, the sweat of the craftsmen standing like beggars, as if you are right there in the setting. Continue reading “The 7 Keys to Writing Professional Settings”