Books written in the 19th and early 20th Century often had extensive description of setting at the beginning of the story, sometimes before the plot was introduced. Today’s readers tend to leave such tomes on dusty shelves, instead choosing novels and short stories of all genres that blend description seamlessly into the unfolding of the story. The “hook” that engages a reader will not be the way a pond looks early in the morning from the front porch. So, don’t waste your first page on it.
However, setting is still just as important as it was to the 19th Century reader. Before weaving the tale, the writer needs to understand the place it happens, the age and culture. Time of day and weather will also add dimension to the story. It may be helpful to map out the plot with setting details. Storyboarding is a good technique for this as it will help you “see” the story before actually writing it.
Storyboarding is a bit like creating a comic strip, with the general outline of events. It shows mood and environment. It is difficult to say which should come first, setting, character, or plot. You have to have a bit of an idea about all three to proceed very far. As you are writing, you may wish to change one aspect and rewrite it, to make sense of your story. Stories do evolve in the writing, so don’t be afraid of that! But we need to begin somewhere.
Is your story a mystery or horror story? The setting should reflect the mood you want to create. Perhaps a deserted house, a dark woods or deep pond with strange noises coming from it. Things are out of place or not as they should be. Show the reader what seems wrong instead of telling them something seems wrong, using your descriptions and the character’s reaction (widened eyes or turning suddenly pale, etc.). Use changes in the setting to build suspense and set the mood for what is coming. Sometimes a tense setting can lead to comic relief if you find the thing you feared was really a cat whose head got stuck in a can and is bumping into the wall.
Perhaps you want to set your story for a romance or adventure. The setting will create an expectation from the reader, building the mood. Like violins in an orchestra, the setting will not draw attention to itself, distracting from the story, but support the whole by giving fullness and support to the players. It is important to note that the actual time and place do not have to be mentioned in the first paragraphs of the story. We can meet the main character first and discover his problem, then find as he begins his journey, whether he is poor or rich, in his hometown or traveling abroad, and what era he lives in. These details can be mentioned in passing to help create the picture in the reader’s eye.
“Show me don’t tell me.” You will often hear this quote used in creative writing instruction, and rightly so. “It began to rain hard.” only tells me the weather.
Take the rain experience through your five senses. What does it sound like? Is it like the erratic tapping of fingers on the table or a soft rhythmic drumming that soothes you to sleep? Does it smell like clean grass or does the dampness bring out the smell of old books (musty)? Is it washing away dirt or creating mud? Does the rain surprise you with a cold smack on the face or perhaps it’s a welcome, cool mist after a heated argument – as you breathe in peace and sweet silence? Maybe it whips against you driving you to the next destination of the story, or causes you to pull over on the road, after nearly hitting another car. Here is an example of adding setting to action, and showing instead of telling.
“I can’t see!” she cried as the semi passed – too close – spraying her overworked wipers with another wave. Marilyn gripped the wheel tightly, heart pounding with the torrent as her tires lifted from the pavement, sliding toward the ditch.
Look through some of your favorite stories. How do they use setting to set a mood? How does it enhance the action or bring out another aspect of the character’s personality?
What if you could change the setting of a familiar story? Would it necessarily change the actions of the characters? It certainly could! Some characters do not fit easily into certain settings. It is possible, though. Sherlock Holmes seems to belong in an atmosphere of tension and suspense, in London, England. But what if he was at a children’s party with clowns? That could actually be quite terrifying to a man who seems so in control, all the time.
What if Hansel and Gretel lived in Maine, by the ocean and ran away to sea instead of into the woods? Why not try to experiment with a story you know well, and play with the setting. The possibilities are endless!
When thinking about setting, answer the following questions, not just for the beginning of the story, but each “scene.”
1. What era does this take place?
2. What time of year?
3. What is the exact location?
4. Time of day – or range of times.
5. Economic/status situation the character finds himself/herself in.
6. Weather conditions
7. Is this scene happening now, or is it a flashback? (Since flashbacks are a memory, it will only contain the images seen by the character having it. It may have a different perspective than someone else who was also there.)
In my next post, I’ll deal with the creation of main and supporting characters.