Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Setting: One More Time Please.

This is the second part of a dicussion - albeit one-sided - on the definition, worth, and structure of Setting.  In the previous posting, I discussed the idea of setting.  We looked at the most basic definition: A description of time and place.  We went into personalizing Setting with how it affected our main character.  We also briefly discussed the old saw about Setting being an actual character of stories.  Which leads us naturally to ask:

If we don't offer a Setting for our stories are we actualy leaving out a necessary character?  I'd love to hear other people's opinion on this.

Today, however, we are going to sidestep this discussion (mainly because I believe that most readers and writers would agree that Setting is indeed desirable).  We are going to do this version of the Timewarp Dance ('slide to the left') by simply approaching the problem from the backside. 

Simply, why not Setting?

If the story can be enhanced by Setting, it seems reasonable that a writer should employ it. Or to put it another way, if Setting is one more tool that a writer can employ to set the TONE of his/her story why not grab hold of this tool and hammer away.

Soooooo, what we're going to look at today is not the philosophy of Setting but the pragmatic application of same.  How best does one utilize Setting to make a story better?

Let us begin (and actually spend all of our time in this offering) with sensory perception.  Assume we are at a stage in our story we want to give the reader a taste of the Setting (it doesn't have to be at the beginning, although it often is).  One good way to engage the reader is to engage their senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. 

The smell of our father's cigarette - we are thrust into the world of a child perched on a parent's lap

The taste of salt on our lips as we stand at the ocean's edge - we stand with an abandonesd pregnant teenager as she watches her lover's sailing ship disappear over the horizon. 

The clammy feel of a dishonest person's handshake - we are introduced to the man who wants to marry our only daughter.

That first glimpse of a field of poppies as we crest a hillside - Dorothy and company on the way to the Emerald City.

The piercing shriek of the siren in a prison - we are immediately part of the clamor and chaos of a prison riot.

Weather, which has long been a vehicle for introducing Setting can be conveyed strategically with how it falls on the senses.  The feel of thunder in in our bones, the chill of a spring rain at a funeral, the taste of a snowflake on the tongue. And since weather has been used since the beginning of writing to convey the Tone of a narrative, this use of the senses personalizes a perhaps overused cliche (a dark and stormy night) into an effective tool to pull even a reluctant reader into our story.

Consider how Stephen King, in The Shining utilizes weather and our senses--the feel of the bitter cold, the stark white of the deepening snow--to pull us into the madness of the caretaker.

Perhaps no modern author, in my opinion, uses weather and the senses (and also just stark description) better than George R R Martin in his fantasy series that begins with A Game of Thrones.  We are whipped by the frigid wind, monsters come out of the hoary frost to devour and drive men to cowardice, we are invited to feel fur against the napes of our necks as we pull our cloaks tight about us, wolves howl in the forest.  And all the while we are reminded again and again "Winter is Coming"

Just how much your reader will put up with by way of sensory description certainly depends on your genre.  If you are a literary writer, your reader will allow you long passages of languid sensory description, so they can roll headlong into the magic of your words--taste them on their tongue, if you will.

Consider this passage from the literary classic House of Breath by Goyen:

A fragile, melodious Oriental language blew in on the wind like the odor of a flower and we saw the string of smoke from a gypsy camp somewhere in the woods...

Goyen blends his sensory images to bring us into this scene.  Language has an odor and is likened to song.  Immediately we are given the sight of a tendril of smoke and because we in the realm of the olfactory we can almost smell the tang of it.  Once thrust into this languid world of smoke and flowers, Goyen goes on for paragraphs delighting us with his images and his language.

I was tempted to compare this literary passage, as Rodelle does in his wonderful text on Setting, with something that uses the senses to build suspense, but I think instead I will finish with another sensory feast--or perhaps two.  Suspense will just have to wait.

The smell of the sea grew in intensity as the last glimpse of Ireland fell into the mist.  The rich odor of the Irish coast, a fragrance of turf smoke and soil, dropped away.  Catherwood by Youman

Is that delightful or what?

She could taste the sugar-sprinkled beignets from the Cafe DuMonde before the plane even touched down on the runway.  

I don't know about you but New Orleans has never been closer.

And with that, I'll whisper a barely heard adieu.



  1. A point: if you're going to have your characters react to something, you have to describe it. That's setting, too.

  2. I have to admit that your settings are very vivid to me. I have never before read a series of books based on places that I have been, much less grew up in. However, because of this sometimes I'm so involved in the setting that I miss the actual story, so I have to go back and re-read to find out what is going on.

  3. I know what you mean. Sometimes the Setting is so vivid that I either revel in it or am distracted or even sometimes annoyed with the amount of it. George R R Martin in his epic fantasies is Setting heavy and truth be told sometimes I skip over them (although sometimes I am forced to go back and read them because they are necessary). An entire 2 pages to describe a massive wall at the edge of a kingdom fascinated me because I wanted to remember this structure because I know that 'Beyond her monsters dwell'.