"Setting has to be vivid and it has to be believable".
The raven perched on the back of the green Muskoka lawn chair, in the sunny garden, a garden heavy with the scent of roses, and quoth, “Never more”. The laird lifted his terrified wife from her weary destrier and said, “Gwan intuh the bar honey an’ I’ll find ya there later”.“Nay Sweetie. I’ll wait for you right here". Jack the Ripper waited at the gate to Hyde Park on a rainy afternoon. Robinson Crusoe hunted in vain for another soul on the coast of Greenland. King Kong plucked the girl from the roof of the Empire State Bar and Grill.
Without the black cobblestones, glistening in the swirling mists of a moonless night, the shabby woman’s tawdry dress and bonnet, her aloneness and fear as she stands, shaking with the cold near a darkened wall of stone... Without that terrifying scene, Jack the Ripper, stepping into the weak lamplight, is just another middle-aged man looking for a hooker. On a glorious sunny afternoon, who cares what a raven, perched on a lawn chair, has to say? He is about as scary as a bunny. The classic Robinson Crusoe story, just will not work in a cold, treeless, rocky shore.
Setting can be a silent, speaking time and place: The gentlemen are standing at their ease on the tilting deck of the Titanic, against the backdrop of a towering iceberg against a dead black night. The tragic ship, seen from afar, blazing with lights, seems to heave herself upward to a hideous angle, hold her breath and slip down and down into the frigid, swallowing sea. Silence tells the story. A change to the past tense makes this setting stand still, enhancing its impact even more.
Setting is much more than a place to hang a story. Well done, setting will immediately draw the reader into the place and mood of the story, making him part of it. If he can't enter the setting very quickly, or can't imagine the setting, he will pick some other book from the library shelf. When he becomes part of the setting, he smells, tastes, hears, touches, sees the scene around him so the writer must effectively provide the smells, sounds, sights and textures for him. The writer must make the setting an integral part of the story just as the tropical isle is a part of the story of Robinson Crusoe.
Jack Bickham, in his book Setting, says that the setting is a vital component of any story, and it does involve a body of technique you can learn and use to improve your creative work. I can’t begin to touch on all his major points. Maybe I will say more about it in future blogs.
Setting isn’t often discussed, but I think it is important to at least have some grasp on its value and part in the plot and how it delineates characters and evokes our emotions. That is why Bickham’s book rests on top of a tottering stack of books on my desk at the moment.
As he says, there is more to setting than physical backdrop. Historical events displayed, the attitudes of the characters, with the experience of the senses, the mood of the time, the depth of research, all must be carefully woven into the story create a setting for the reader to enter. These factors can have a strong effect on the readers’ and the characters’ emotions.
Bernard Cornwell is a master at this. He uses his exhaustively researched actions, historical attitudes, characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and all five senses, to create living backgrounds. All these factors, and more, are so expertly woven into his stories that it is nearly impossible not to have very deep feelings about the characters, the scenes and the actions. His description of battle at Crecy for example, has a pathos that leaves me with a lump in my throat, if not tears on my cheeks. He forces the reader to stand on the hillside in the cold rain and feel the incredible sight and sound of thousands of French knights dying, drowning in blood and knee-deep mud, screaming men and horses in a restricted field with no way to escape. The reader sees hundreds more knights charging forward, seeing the unimaginable, but without any possibility of turning and retreating. The reader becomes one with the archers and their longbows, methodically raining a stream of endless arrows - unseeing, unfeeling - lest they go mad at the sight of their creation.
The setting also affects the writer. A dreamy, romantic setting calls does not call for a terse, hammering style and a tense situation cannot be expressed in a soft, leisurely style.
Bickham states emphatically: “When you choose a setting, you had better choose wisely and well, because your very choice defines - and circumscribes - your story's possibilities”.
How important is setting to you? Do you spend considerable time crafting it and weaving it into your story? Are your settings more than physical? Do you feel the effect of settings when you read novels? Are you on the inside because of well drawn settings?