Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Setting: It's not just a place

Today my guest is Laurin Wittig, who writes historical romances set in the Scottish Highlands. She’s blogging today on how to make your settings do more than just be the backdrop to your story. And as a bonus, it's also my day over at The Blood Red Pencil.

When you create a story, does the setting matter to you? It should. The setting is an important backdrop for your story but it can be so much more than Aubusson carpets, castles or spaceships. If you can pick your story up and put it in another setting without changing it, then you are missing an opportunity to deepen both your story and your characters.

I was recently critiquing a story written in first person which included a lot of what I termed "reporter" mode whenever the protagonist went into a new environment/setting. The place and the things in it were described well enough that I could picture where she was, but it was flat and frankly a little boring. The setting didn't matter to the character, so it didn't matter to me. That's when I realized something I've intuitively known for a long time: it isn't the description of the setting that is important to the reader's experience, it's the point of view character's perception and emotional response to the setting that's important.

You know how writers are always spouting off about "show, don't tell"? This is a great example of why that is so important. Let me give you an example of reporting/telling about a setting:

The computer monitor and keyboard sat on top of a wooden desk strewn with pieces of paper. A green desk chair was pushed off to one side of the desk. An empty coffee mug sat to the left of the keyboard and on the right was a box of tissues. One picture of a yellow kayak hung above the monitor.

Is this an accurate description of a desk in someone's office? Sure. Do you care whose office it is? I don't. Can you even tell whose office it is? Is it a home office or a business office? Who is describing this office? Why is this office important? (That's the big question!)

It's a description of a setting but it really doesn't convey any information beyond what it looks like. But what if I described/showed it this way...

I glared at the black screen on the monitor across the room. His chair, his expensive, ergonomic, ordered all the way from Sweden in ice-moss green, chair sat right where he'd left it three days ago, shoved away from the desk. A dried up slosh of coffee surrounded his abandoned mug and the guilt that had dogged me for wasting so much money on the fancy coffee machine for Christmas last year just added to the slurry of misery in my gut. I glanced at the picture of his kayak over his desk and tried to remember the joy and excitement of those early days together.

Now does what is essentially the same room tell you anything about the character describing it? Can you see how this descriptive passage is also filled with emotions? Glared. Shoved away. Abandoned. Guilt. Slurry of misery. Do these descriptions suggest something about the relationship of the point of view character and the owner of the office?

I could add additional sense details to make the setting even more vivid. What if she smelled his aftershave still filling the room, then closed the door behind her, shutting the smell inside with everything else? Would that add a still deeper meaning to this setting? I think so.

Check out some of your own setting descriptions, or pick up a book by your favorite author and look at how setting is used. Does it do double or triple duty, not only showing the place where the scene is happening but also showing the point of view character's emotions, or reflecting or hinting at the conflict, or reinforcing the character's world view, or motivations or goals?

Does it have to do all of that at once to earn its place in your story? No, but it should do at least a couple. Setting isn't just the backdrop for a story, it's a subtle tool for adding depth to characters, and to an entire story.

You can find out more about Laurin’s books at http://laurinwittig.com. Her craft of writing blog, Between the Lines, is at http://BTLCritiques.com. Her books are available at most online booksellers, including Amazon.com, and Laurin can also be found at Facebook and at Twitter @LaurinWittig.


Candis Terry said...

Excellent subject matter, Laurin! And I can honestly say that you were the one to help me understand how important setting is. I get lots of kudos on that from my editor. You rock!

Virginia Farmer said...

I love it when an example of 'adequate' is given and then the improved version. For a visual learner, this is perfect. And very well done, Laurin. Thanks.

Jan Morrison said...

Thanks Terry for hosting Laurin. I think this is right on. If our characters don't care then we go to sleep. No matter what it is about.
Jan Morrison

Denise Lynn said...

Great article, Laurin. The characters' interaction with the setting is soooooo important. I described a bedchamber in one of my early books - the heroine's first glimpse and she wasn't there by choice - the editor's comment was a big red "SO?????" Took a while to figure out what she was questioning...ah, yes, the brain runs slower than normal at times.

Laurin Wittig said...

Candis, I have some vivid memories of your settings, so I may have helped you tweak them, but you were well on the right track. BTW - congrats on the release of your debut novel!!! I've already downloaded a copy to my Kindle. :-)

Virginia, We must learn the same way. Show me works better than explain it to me, so I tend to teach and critique that way, too. Thanks for stopping by!

Jan, Obviously I agree with you. :-) And why not make the setting work as hard for your story as the plot or the characters do?

Denise, LOL! My dad was famous for saying "So???" and it always made me think deeper... once I figured out what he was getting at. Thanks for dropping by!

Melynda Andrews said...

You're right on, Laurin! Setting can be a great tool for characterization.

I've heard a setting described as being a character in itself, and indeed I've used it in the same way I've used a main character's sidekick, when I didn't have a sidekick handy. ;-) The main character can react to your setting (think of Nell reacting to her home as it changes over time in the movie of that same title) and interact with it, (Dorothy with Oz), love it (Scarlette's Tara) or hate it (Jenny's childhood home in Forrest Gump). Sometimes the setting is so important that it just ~can't~ be separated from the story. Very powerful!

As useful as setting can be to characterization, though, a writer doesn't always have to make her setting work that hard for the story to speak to us. After all, much of Shakespeare or Austen can be set in modern times (West Side Story and Clueless).

Robin Lythgoe said...

I much enjoyed this post, and it goes right along with some other things I've been reading (and writing!) in a a similar vein. The setting heavily affects the characters in my current WIP, and it's been fun to use it.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Great post, Laurin! Showing the connection between thec haracter and the item described makes the scene do duoble duty and the reader learns so much.

Jane Myers Perrine

Diana Cosby said...

Love your posts, they're always informative. Plus, you write amazing setting. Me, I have a huge passion for setting. I agree, it should breath its own life, add another layer to a story.
A character can walk through green grass.
A character can stumble across the fertile earth pungent with stench of decay, a wretched odor that cast images of death.

*G* Okay, did I say I loved writing setting?
Thanks again for the fabulous topic. Hope you have a super summer, and I wish you continued success! *Hugs*