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.