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I’ll admit I haven’t always found writing setting easy. As I wrote my books I could see scenes playing out clearly in my head and thought the reader would somehow also see it the way I did by osmosis or some other magical device, because I wasn’t giving them much in the way of setting detail. These days I’ve come to realise just how important setting is, and the load it carries, not only in establishing our story worlds and grounding the reader in that world, but also the essential role setting plays in developing the tone of a piece of writing and in illustrating emotional undercurrents.
Writers of fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism and historical fiction take note – worlds that are not easily imagined by a modern audience demand that the writer spend more time and page space on developing their story setting. This story world needs to be placed in time and space with key sensory physical and cultural details described so the reader is able to visualise where the story action is taking place and is familiarised with the mores and ethical laws of this new world.
For example, a sci-fi novel set on a planet controlled by women where there are three moons but no sun, with trees as tall as skyscrapers and all dwellings are within the trunks of those trees, needs much more description than a story set in a modern shopping mall. A fantasy medieval world with modern gender sensibilities also needs greater description – not only of the physical but also of the societal aspects of the world. We need to give the reader enough clues about the story world, and demonstrate consistency in this world, both physically and culturally, so that they can relax and not have to strain over imagining where the action is taking place. When we are writing a piece based on a modern, familiar setting we don’t need to fill in as much detail, but we still need to use a few telling clues to establish where and when we are. See GROUNDING YOUR READER for more.
SPECIFIC UNEXPECTED SENSORY DETAILS
Artwork by Karla Dickens, photo by me.
One of my favourite writers, Karen Joy Fowler, author of Booth and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, once shared with me her tips for writing, and using these specific unexpected sensory details was one of the best. When we write prose rather than screenplays, we have the advantage of being able to use all of our senses, while screenwriting is confined to only what we can see and hear. So USE ALL FIVE SENSES in your writing. Show us the shapes and colours and give us the sounds but also include smells, and taste if you can, and the visceral experience of the body. The key is to make these details interesting. Choose the unexpected.
For example, if you’re describing a teenage boy’s bedroom, we expect to see piles of dirty sports clothes, and some band posters on the wall, but we don’t expect to see a frog halfway through dissection and a collection of taxidermy projects lining the shelves. The cave dweller who had a crooked little finger that showed up every time she did a handprint is instantly recognisable through this one unexpected detail. Use the power of the unexpected in your setting descriptions!
Setting is not just the house or room or forest or sea or ship or castle or dungeon, it also includes what I call the “props” – furniture, decorations, contents of fridges or bags or other items in that setting. By choosing what you want the reader to focus on through your description of these specific unexpected details you can illustrate their personalities before they even appear on the scene.
Describe a character through the contents of either their pockets, handbag or fridge. What clues can you give us about this character by what you choose to show us?
Artwork by Paul Yore, photo by me 🙂
T. S. ELIOT’S OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE
The poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote about using objects to illustrate character emotions instead of baldly stating the feeling. For example. Instead of saying: Pam was totally frazzled, we could show Pam packing an overnight bag in a rush, but forgetting to close it properly so when she goes to leave everything falls onto the floor. Think of that old song “My Grandfather’s Clock” – the clock stops short, never to go again, when the old man dies.
- Use an object to illustrate emotion in your story.
Setting details can also reveal emotional undercurrents to a story and set the tone of the whole piece. Shakespeare often uses the weather to illustrate the emotional turmoil of his dramas. Storms and droughts and wild winds or gentle rain can all play a part in establishing the emotional setting of a scene.
- Add drama to a scene of conflict through using weather details – a blazing sun hammering down, a torrential downpour about to wash the hut away?
- For a great exercise in the use of setting details to illustrate tone and mood try Rodney Hall’s 10 Sentence Story Starter exercise. You may even end up with a brand new story.
In a similar way, setting details used well in dialogue, can completely change the meaning behind the spoken words. There’s a big difference between “What time is it?” Rosie squints and slowly lifts her head from the pillow. And “What time is it?” Rosie hurls the cold saucepan full of soup at Bob’s head.
Remember the key to good setting is the use of SPECIFIC UNEXPECTED TELLING DETAILS.
Have you got any tips for writing setting? Do let me know in the comments!
Lots of love