Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wherefore Art Thou?

"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?

12 comments:

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Connie,

Developing the setting is probably the area I ignore the most in my writing. I know where it is set, what the place looks like but I don't make it a part of my draft. I always plan to add 'those details' in later.

You are correct, though, to point out that the setting can (should) affect the actions of the characters. I'll keep that in mind when I write. Thanks!

Helena said...

Setting is very important to me, yet I think I spend the least time on it. And I don't think I do it very well, so it's definitely something I need to work on. Mmm, maybe a book on setting is the next one I need to borrow (from somewhere).

I found your displaced situations fascinating -- probably the raven was the most intriguing example. Very unique way to make your point. Thanks for pointing out how inextricably entwined the setting and the story can become.

Karyn Good said...

What a great post, Connie. It's made me think of setting and how important it is and how often I don't do it justice. Or use it as a tool to enhance and bring depth to my stories. I tend to skim over it, I think in part because my current wip is set in very famiiar territory. I can see it perfectly in my mind but I doubt that is coming across on the page.

Thanks for the reminder to pay more due and attention to an important element of any story.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Love the way you used the first para to show what you were talking about.

Yes, setting is crucial to me, especially since I write Historicals. I spend a lot of time working out the setting for each scene and then ensuring the accuracy of detail. Having to send the reader back in time as quick as I can and keep him/her there is a real challenge. One small item out of the era blows the whole credibility factor.

I do use weather at lot for the setting, as well as sounds and smells. Or at least I try to.

Great post, Connie.

Janet said...

Well done, Connie. I love this post and the message you have woven throughout. Setting is, in fact, another character in your novel and should be treated with the same respect and circumspect as those that speak, act and react. No matter what time period a person chooses to write in.

I'm about to start a revision and will pay close attention to setting in my story. Especially with regards to introducing the setting quickly so my reader is ready to go on the adventure :)

connie said...

Hi Anne,
Me too. I only use settings I know well and haven't looked at through the readers eyes to see if they can tell if it is Edinburgh or Weyburn.
This ring story will be a challenge. I'm not even sure of the boundaries of Ancient Mesopotamia. I need to sharpen my descriptions too

connie said...

Helena,
I don't do it very well either. I think I should do a further blog on it to outline his methods.

I wonder who has a book on settings to loan to you next???

Remind me in April and I will bring it along - provided the Perilous Pile doesn't tip over and pin me to the chair.

connie said...

Hi Karyn,

I think we all tend to skip over it, but I don't remember noticing it particular, the absence of description of setting in any books I have read. That is probably because the book is non-fiction or it is set in Scotland or England and my imagination takes over.

It is so easy to get tripped up on detail. For example, there were no specific clan tartans until the 1800s

I taught in Weyburn for a year and didn't notice till it was pointed out to me, that airplanes don't fly over Weyburn. Since watching vapour trails often, as I lay on the lawn in summer, I might well hang vapour trail or two over Weyburn.

connie said...

Ah hah! You are far more diligent than I Anita.

I guess I just assume everyone either sees the invisible because there is no description or has the same imagination I do.

Weather is a major factor in Saskatchewan and my home town, Niagara Falls. I remember Hurricane Hazel and seeing huge trees topple and small ones fly by. I remember bombers trying to break up the ice on the lower river because it was blocked at a narrow place and was backing up and climbing the banks, threatening power plants that serve most of northeastern USA and all of Ontario. But I never think to add some such drama to a story.

That ice jam itself could be a major player in a novel. The constant, low pitched grinding was awful.

connie said...

Hey Janet,

You ought to be able to write a word or two about the weather since you have been treated to lots of it lately and none noticably nice.

However, I suppose a string of curse words accurately describes Maritime weather, but in a romance....

It would be interesting to try to write a short story with weather (or my ice jam) as the main character but, it would be difficult to make a hero out of a cold rain.

Thanks for your comments.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
I agree with the others here; I probably don't pay enough attention to setting.

In the past, I tried to stick to settings I was familiar with. I'm trying to break free these days, and I'm hoping attention to setting helps me do it.

Jana

connie said...

Hi Jana

Breaking free sounds like a good idea. Just don't have any airplanes flying over Weyburn.

I had never thought much about settings either until I started this book

Tomorrow, I am going to visit mein gross kinder so I think I will pack it in for today. If anyone else comments, I will reply in an email.

night all