At one point in writing history, writers began their stories by setting the scene. Setting was once used as a reflection characters emotions or actions. For example, a storm arises as a disagreement to your evil plot of revenge… But setting in books have changed today with things like TV. We still need setting, but it is not nearly as important as our characters and plot.
Setting brings us to a certain time and place.
Seattle’s physical setting compared with Albuquerque’s is night and day– one is high desert, with dusty browns and golds; the other is sea-level, with fertile flora and greens and blues. But they also eat different foods. ABQ leans more towards a Mexican flavor whereas most anyone in Seattle can list 5-20 favorite Asian foods.
Again, Albuquerque’s music scene is nothing like New Orleans’ and New York’s cosmopolitan culture is vastly different to a small town in South Dakota. China’s city of Chengdu, where I live now, has totally different sights, smells, cars, bikes, cafes and restaurants than Europe. Some places I could even describe without telling you where and you could guess the city or country I was talking about.
As a writer, we can take people wherever we want. Into a cabin. Into a drug lord’s lair. Into history. Into new worlds.
When we go to another city, we discover that the people in that town appreciate a style of coffee or way of barbecue, or Christmas traditions. This makes setting unique, and it can bring us into a place. When I was taking a writing class, my teacher made me read Irish author James Joyce. His setting is particularly Irish but also set in a historical time.
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is repeatedly studied because her setting has captured a unique historical time in Europe. Her story could have (and has been) retold in different setting today, but her setting made it famous.
Which means, some of the best descriptions may come from what you know best; what is right around you.
Setting should be alive and advance the story: creating foreshadow and mystery.
Setting should be full of detail and depth, moving and alive– but always serving your story. The atmosphere of a story, even intent, can be transmitted through setting. In our stories today, everything written should have more than one connection to our story. In movies, for example, if we see something out of place, we can assume it has something to do with the story. Likewise, the reader can guess what our setting is projecting.
This is why setting can be fun. We are advancing the story by showing and not telling, which leads to…
Setting: “Too much lulls us to sleep; Not enough starves us.”
We can choose to give certain scenes more or less detail and description. If our character is having a particularly deep moment, we can create more beauty. Not everything requires detail. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “We walked into the house. The furniture was shabby and the carpet was stained..” We will get your point. In other cases, especially if the setting is linked with your plot, or if you are world building, the reader will require more depth in setting to grasp where the story is taking us.
Some literary writers prose are so packed with detail that it can more poetic. This is a style, but not one I often see employed in Young adult literature today.
A former teacher shared with me Elizabeth Bowen’s rule about setting, and said that most writers today live by it: “Setting can only be justified where it has dramatic use.”
Setting: Every writer and story is different, and sometimes you just have to practice.
Try looking at these pictures and tell me what kind of story do they provoke?
Nova, signing off.