I generally write in one of three chairs in my house, and almost always with music on and the TV off. I tend to cuddle up under a blanket and have a glass of iced tea on hand.
Today, I tried something a little new. I went out onto my back patio and spent an hour on a lounge chair. It was a bit nippy out, and I wore a sweater, but the sun was shining through the trees, the birds were singing, and a gentle breeze was blowing tiny white petals off the newly blooming dogwoods.
I wrote a dark and desperate scene out there in all that beauty, and that got me thinking of both setting, and how using a setting that reinforced the mood of a scene (or in some rare cases, that contrasts that mood) can be a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Setting is often defined as the place and time when a scene occurs. Yet setting is capable of being so much more than simply a stage on which the characters perform.
Setting creates mood.
Consider how the descriptions of setting make you feel. Of course, not every setting needs to be dark or nostalgic or awe-inspiring, but if you can create a mood by choosing your words carefully, how much more power does that lend to the emotional content of your work? To touch the reader is the ultimate goal of any piece, to connect to that person’s mind or emotions or mood, to perhaps even inspire thought or emotion. By using setting to create mood, you bring the reader into the world you’ve created in a much more visceral way than straight description.
Setting contributes to character.
If you write first or third person narratives that use specific points of view, then setting descriptions are filtered through the perceptions of your point of view character. The details you pick out and the manner in which you describe them can reveal hidden layers of personality and emotion in your character, and leave the reader feeling as if they have gotten a sense of who that person is without having to be told. This can be particularly powerful if you allow two characters to interpret a setting in contrasting ways, filtered through their own varied perceptions.
Setting provides clues to the reader.
There’s an old saying that you can’t describe a gun on the mantle in Act I and not have it go off by the end of Act III. The reason for this is that setting and the props we put in it can add a sense of anticipation and expectation to the reader. Setting can thusly create suspense.
Setting illustrates your world.
As someone who rarely does any world-building prior to starting in on a piece, or for that matter prior to the moment in which I need to know something for the story to continue, I often get asked questions about world-building on the fly. I tend to choose elements of setting to reinforce the mood or a characteristic I want to highlight, but I never underestimate the importance of picking settings that convey the underlying truths of my world. A society where modesty was prized above everything else would be unlikely to carry on conversations in a bathing room, for instance, whereas in a civilization where communal bathing is the norm, that setting might make more sense. It’s even better if you’ve got characters who don’t necessarily agree about the “rules” of culture or are from very different cultures.
I often see works, both published and rough, that either ignore setting entirely or rely on long, static descriptions of setting to paint a picture of the stage. In my humble (or not so humble) opinion, both are mistakes. Setting can be a workhorse, pulling a lot of weight in a story. It is a unique opportunity to add depth and layers of meaning to a world a reader is experiencing for the first time. It is also a unique opportunity to bring the world to life and give it the feeling of being dynamic and rich. Blending the descriptions with character reactions, actions, mood, and perceptions prevents it from becoming stale or cardboard, and allows the reader to experience that character in a deeper way than simply being told “Will felt melancholy” or “Sarah was happy” etc..
Do you use setting for more than just a stage? If so, how? What work do you expect a setting to accomplish in the story?