Friday, February 24, 2012

Setting, Setting and More Setting. Part III

Hello patient readers.  This is the third installment of the series on Setting.  Today we will discuss distinct methods of introducing readers to the Setting of your story.  We've already discussed the why of Setting.  We've also considered using the five senses to introduce the reader to our place and time.  Now we will pull out a few tools that can be used in comparing our proposed Setting to things the reader is already familiar with.


Similes, the first cousins of metaphors (we will discuss these next) are such tools.  When one uses AS or Like to compare one thing, event, or experience to another this is simile.

The teacher moved like a lion among the sheep as he entered the classroom.

Thick as pea soup the fog stole all detail from the landscape.

 When he laughed, his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly.

Consider the following passage from Ken Follett's The Hammer of Eden

As the light strengthened, they could distinguish the dark shapes of cranes, and giant earthmoving machines below them, silent and still like sleeping giants.

Effective.  We see the great machines clearly because we know about giants and in this case the machines are inactive, because they are 'sleeping'.

Simile is direct.  Grab an desired image, compare it in your Setting to something the reader can readily recognize, and viola you have made them see a part of your Setting.  This simple comparison may be crude and basic but it works, because the reader probably uses simile in his own everyday speech, especially teenagers.

You are like so so gross, dude.


 Metaphors walk softly and subtly where similes at times can club us senseless.  In a simile AS and LIKE are used to compare two things.  In metaphor we simply state one thing IS another.

Winston Churchill, the proud English lion, led his country through the war.

The woman was a harpy spitting curses into the wind.

Clarence, an Eiffel Tower of a sax player, commanded attention whenever he took a solo.

In each case, our character we wanted to describe, became for a clarifying moment the things we needed them to become.

Personally, I prefer metaphors.  They're elegant.  In the lie they tell (Winston Churchill isn't really a lion any more than Clarence Clemens was the Eiffel Tower), they reveal a greater truth. By saying something IS something else we are claiming qualities, definable qualities belong to the thing we want the reader to see in his or her mind's eye.

Here is a piece from Alex Hailey's Roots

...a great beating of wings filled the air and a vast living carpet of seafowl - hundreds of thousands of them, in every color of the rainbow - rose and filled the sky.

Hailey's image would have probably worked just as effectively if he hadn't assigned a quantity to the number of birds.  A 'Carpet of Seafowl' would have done the trick.  That's the beauty of metaphor.

How about this one from almost every Sunday hymnal:

A Mighty Fortress is our God.   Martin Luther was asking us to picture God as a refuge of great stone walls, a place where all can be safe.


Next we will take a short walk in the land of analogies.  A is to B as C is to D.  Analogies are detailed comparisons.

A simple analogy might be 'Card is to deck as month is to year.'

Here's another.  The bayou was to me as hot water cornbread was to mama.

Akin to simile, this passage from William's When Kambia Elaine Flew in From Neptune, does so much for the Setting with a few words.  We know something about the narrator as well as mama.  More subtly we know the world we're about to explore (deep south, maybe Mississippi, maybe Louisiana).  It's a world of bayous and cornbread and folks who call their mothers mama.

Analogies link two things together by one characteristic they share and by homing in on that characteristic illuminate that solitary essence.

These three: Simile, Metaphor, and Analogy are the first line of comparison.  Easy to use and remember.


Slightly more esoteric are Allusions.  We describe something by calling to mind something else, but that something else must be recognizable, preferably famous.  Woe be the writer if he alludes to something and the reader has no idea what he's talking about.  If we use allusions we shouldn't be forming a club that only select members can get in.  Our allusion should be broad enough to include everyone you visualize reading your story.

Here we have the opening of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John.

This opening passage refers to the opening sentence of Moby Dick.  Call me Ishmael.

What I envision Vonnegut was up to was evoking that mystical feeling that was connected to the hunting of the great white whale, the hopelessness, the grandeur.

'Things are going to happen in this story that are similar to the things that happened in Moby Dick'  

He even used the word Jonah, a name connected to whales in the Bible.  But first and foremost I think Vonnegut was hoping that the vast majority of folks reading Cat's Cradle had actually read Moby Dick.

Allusion is definitely tricky.  With none of the other literary comparison devices do we run such a risk of falling flat on our faces.  We tell a joke and nobody gets the punch line. You can almost picture a reader scratching her head and saying, "Huh?"


Personification is referencing non-human items with human characteristics.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings; the sun for sorrow will not show its head.

This literary device describes the Setting of this scene wonderfully.  The narrator is definitely bummed.  How do we know?  Even the sun is sorrowful.  In fact it will not show its head.

Here is another literary device that your reader has used herself, maybe even today.

The wind bit into me.  I was slapped by a wave.  That rocky road ice cream in the freezer is calling my name.

Since all of our readers are human with human characteristics, they are immediately in tune with personification.

Let clouds smile down on your hero.  Let the fruit trees in the Spring sing a song of rebirth.  What the heck, let the buttons on a fat man's shirt rejoice when they no longer have to hold in his belly.

With the inclusion of Personification and Allusion we have put 5 more tools in our Setting Kit.  These are by no means the only tools we will bring to bear on Setting, but they are the last ones we will talk about today.

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