Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Making Setting Work For You

Establishing when and/or where a story takes place is necessary to any story. Certain stories don't (or can't, i.e. flash fiction) need much space to describe the setting. But some amount is necessary in order for a reader to feel grounded in the story. It is impossible for your reader to "get" your story without at least a minimal sense of where they are.

For most of us, that means taking a paragraph or two to describe the scene that our characters find themselves in. However, I learned a principle from Clint Johnson that I strive to follow. He terms it "triple-duty writing," and it basically means that every word you write illuminates something about your character, plot, and setting. It's extremely difficult to do all the time, but he has a great presentation with hands-on applications to help you get a feel for how to do it.

His techniques combined with other things I've learned from conferences and craft books have changed how I look at setting. I filter everything through my POV character and their current state of mind. The setting description is going to change based upon the mood, plot, action, etc. For example, if one character is feeling uplifted, s/he may notice the beautiful colors reflecting off the clouds in the sunset. If a different character who is angry sees the exact same sunset, s/he instead may notice the impending storm in those same, dark clouds. Or even the opposite: s/he may still notice the colors but only because it is giving him/her a headache. What aspects of the setting you describe -- and how your character responds to it -- is a great way to emphasize your character's mood or frame of mind.

Also consider what is happening in your story as you describe your setting. Think action sequence. If a character is racing down a hallway, running from the bad guys who are shooting at him/her, there is a sense of urgency that will prevent the character from seeing details. S/He will not see how many doors are in the hallway, or what colors they are, or the ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. S/He will notice that he/she tried several doors that were all locked until finally one halfway down on the left was open. That's all the setting your character has time for.

I have to laugh, and give some credit to, action movies. They all have the obligatory, tender "reconciliation" scene before the big, end, "we're-all-gonna-die" battle. I've never been in a life-or-death situation, but sometimes these scenes seem rather out of character for the actors and storyline, which is what I laugh about.  (Most recently, I think of A Good Day to Die Hard.)  However, to their credit, the directors never put these scenes in the middle of the actual action, but instead in the calm before the storm. Or if they do put it during the action, it's always comical because we intrinsically know that such a scene would never happen at that moment.

But that's the hard thing about writing: everything intrinsic has to become extrinsic.

But writing through your character's POV doesn't mean you can entirely forget your reader either. For example, I had a member in my critique group submit a chapter of his novel which takes place in a courtroom. After reading a few pages, it was obvious this was not the earthly courtroom that I had envisioned. I suggested to him to still mention it was a courtroom, then describe the things that were different from what I would expect. That prevents him from describing everything, but still keeps me grounded in the logic of the story.

The great writers always use setting to their advantage. I dare you to read any classic work wherein the setting is just a placeholder and isn't actually adding to the story. I think you'd find it difficult to find such a book. I recently re-read The Pearl by John Steinbeck, and I was impressed with his master storytelling for so many different reasons. One of these reasons included his use of setting. A couple of times throughout the story, he almost seems to step outside of the story to describe "stuff" around the character. But I quickly realized these moments served a greater purpose: they reflected the thoughts/feelings of the characters, or they paralleled the storyline. One such scene describes the little fish being devoured by the larger, more carnivorous fish. This scene perfectly reflected the actions of the story at that moment.

So if you want to step beyond being a mediocre, or even good writer, start making your setting work for you. Don't think of it as just another thing to add in to your story, but rather figure out how it can enhance your story.