Writing advice

Setting in Fiction

Recently—this morning, actually—I finished a suspense novel by Stephen White titled The Best Revenge. It was a solid novel, good, though not great. I gave it three out of five stars primarily because it didn’t awaken in me that sense of urgency I look for in a good suspense novel. It was interesting and well written. I had no trouble reading it through to the end. But I never felt that sense that everything was on the line. That if the characters didn’t make the correct decisions, everything would be lost.

I haven’t quite figured out why that sense of urgency never appeared in Mr. White’s novel. I’m still mulling it over. My instinct tells me it’s in the way Mr. White handled the point of view, but I’ll have to think it over some more. I’ll let you know.

However, one technique Mr. White used wonderfully did catch my attention and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. That technique is his use of setting to add depth and richness to his narrative.

The Best Revenge takes place in and around the city of Boulder, Colorado and by the time I finished the book, I felt as familiar with the environment as someone who lives there (probably more because locals tend to ignore the sights around them out of familiarity). I love that feeling. It’s one of the benchmarks I have for a well-written story.

Why? Because it’s realistic. Where ever we are we are surrounded by scenery. So are the people we interact with, our friends and our enemies. While we may not consciously notice it, subconsciously we all do. Personally, where I live, you can see the Pacific ocean to the west from most places in town. To the east are steep ridges covered with a thick forest of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock. Alder graces the edge of the forest. The river empties into the ocean just north of town. Its valley cuts through the ridges to the east.

Everyone in town, whether they are aware of it or not, is influenced by the landscape around us. It affects the climate. It affects the direction the wind blows (almost always from either the north or south). It affects the job market.

Setting grounds the story, anchoring it to a particular place and time.

The Best Revenge takes place during the end of a hot, dry summer. Every person in town is watching the mountains to the west, hoping for relief in what they call the monsoon season. Every character in the book does it. Characters talk to each other about it. It adds a layer of realism. Where I live, we’re in the middle of a fairly serious drought and it’s a regular topic of conversation.

Setting can provide yet another hurdle the hero must overcome to achieve her goal.

Mr. White didn’t use this aspect as much the he did grounding, but I recently read another book where a massive thunderstorm erupted just as his enemies entered a trap he’d set for them. Within moments, he is blinded by torrential rain and deafened by the wind and the noise of the rain itself. Now, he not only had to overcome the enemy’s shooting skill and intelligence, but he had to deal with the weather too.

Setting will affect how the characters interact with each other, their environment, and how they go about their quest.

In The Best Revenge, the dry heat is an ever-present force. Characters pause to let their cars cool down before climbing in. They seek air conditioning. Feel self-conscious if out in the heat too long. And always is the longing for the arrival of the monsoon rains. Everyone seems to spend some of their down time searching the western mountains for a sign of storm clouds.

So now that we’ve looked at some reasons why we should expend some serious energy on creating the setting, let’s take a look at how to do that.

Less is more

As in most things fiction related, a quick, evocative sketch is much more effective than a lengthy portrait. Most readers don’t have the patience anymore for long descriptive settings. They get bored. When they get bored, they tend to go away. Not what we want.

Long, descriptive passages also bring the pace of the story to a grinding halt. While you’re waxing poetically about the beauties of that mountain stream, absolutely nothing is happening. Your hero is merely standing where you left her, waiting for you to finish.

So is your reader.

Details are everything

In The Best Revenge, Stephen White has one character tell a second to take one route instead of a second because she’ll “miss the commuters.” That’s a detail that speaks of local knowledge. Looking at a map, or a Wikipedia article won’t tell you the back routes the locals use to avoid traffic log jams. It’s a detail that evokes much more than the words express.

Use as many senses as possible

We, as a species, are visually oriented, but that isn’t the only sense we use to experience our surrounding. Don’t forget to include what your character hears, whether it’s the sound of traffic on a nearby freeway or the roar of planes coming into the airport. What about smell? Can your character smell the rotten egg stench of the paper mill? The pines of the nearby forest? What does your character feel? Is it humid? Can she taste salt in the air? What about some of the more ephemeral senses? Does the character feel isolated and alone out on the family ranch? Crowded and claustrophobic amid the city crowds? Frustrated with traffic?

The setting description must be integral to the story

Don’t make a character walk over to a window just so you can describe the mountain vista. If she walks over to the window, it should be for some other reason, such as looking for someone watching her. The description of the mountains should be—should seem anyway—incidental. Remember, locals don’t really revel in the scenery they see every day. It’s just there most of the time. It’s the tourists, those who are seeing it for the first time, who revel in it.

It’s best to know what you’re talking about

Unless you’re a better writer than I am, you cannot fake a good setting. Sure, you can identify the primary landmarks from reading articles and checking maps. You could even find out some local color by interviewing people who have lived there. But, in my opinion, you cannot do justice to a location without actually visiting the place at least once. All the research in the world cannot tell you what it feels like first thing on a spring morning. It can’t tell you what landmarks your lead character could see from his bed room window.

An example, I used to live in Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Now the travel guides will tell you that you can see two volcanic mountains—Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier—and the Olympic Range from Oak Harbor. Mt. Baker is roughly to the northeast, Mt. Rainier to the southeast, and the Olympics to the west. All this is true, but inaccurate.

The truth—and only actually being there would reveal it—is that Mt. Baker was visible probably ninety percent of the time. Mt. Rainier was farther away and could only be seen on the clearest days, probably less than ten percent of the time. The Olympics were fairly close, but since they were to the west and Oak Harbor lay on the east side of Whidbey Island, could only be seen from high ground.

If you had faked the view your character sees from Oak Harbor and got this part wrong, it would ring untrue to everyone who had ever been there.

It’s better to actually know what you’re talking about.

Test it

Take your story (or a portion of it) and change the location. If your original setting is in Manhattan, change the place names to some small town in Kansas (or Yorkshire). If it works just as well in either place without a major rewrite, I’d maintain you need to go back and firmly anchor it in place. Changing location should change the story. The story you write needs to be the story that can ONLY take place where it does. Otherwise it will come across as superficial.

Go back and adjust your setting.

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