The Devil is in the Details–of the Setting

(This blog is cobbled from notes I took years ago at a writer’s conference, and I’m sorry I don’t remember and didn’t note who gave this talk.)
Setting…yeah, that place where your story/novel takes place. The millionaire’s mansion, the wide open spaces of that western novel, the cramped quarters of a compact car your heroine steals to get away from the villain…setting is just as important to your story as are the main characters. The goal of description is to create a well-designed set that provides the perfect background for your characters. Without the details of setting, you’re condemning your readers to wander around an empty stage, trying to figure out where they’re at. Too much description though, especially in large chunks, and you’re risking what I once heard described as “the tombstone effect”—large blocks of description that are just so much grey material the reader will skim (and sometimes skip) looking for action.
So, how do you reveal setting without etching it in that tombstone?
Setting is revealed through motion. Put your character into a place she isn’t familiar. Let’s pretend she’s a girl of humble origins and she’s just landed the job of a lifetime—nanny to a widowed multimillionaire’s kids. Now, have her walk through that rich dude’s home on her first day on the job. Which details would she notice immediately? The softness of the Persian rug underfoot? The paintings on the wall? How do those paintings make her feel? Can she tell the difference between a Monet or a Picasso? Does she sink into the leather couch? Can she smell the leather? Use active verbs as she makes her way through this place. Instead of explaining/telling that the chandelier glittered and danced in the light, make her blink because of the display. Instead of telling your reader that there’s a heavy, HUGE marble table in the room, make her detour around it. And, we can’t forget the kids…are they happy there is someone new there? Or, perhaps looking at her as if she’s just one in a long string of many who have come and gone. Make sure it’s your character that’s doing all the action—not the setting.

A character’s level of experience reveals setting. Different characters perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on each character’s familiarity/lack of such with the setting. Let’s take our girl of humble origins above and our rich widower and put them somewhere else. Let’s suppose our rich widower lives in a secluded home high on a cliff overlooking the ocean and the only way to get there is to walk across a rugged, boulder-strewn beach. She’s shivering and bundled to the teeth but the wind is still cutting through her wool wrap while the rich widower beside her is wearing only a cable-knit sweater and doesn’t seem to be affected by the damp, cutting cold in the least. She tripping and falling over half-buried pieces of driftwood in the damp sand and is utterly certain that her shoes will be completely ruined by the time they reach his home. She’s pretty sure that the wind, the dark clouds, and the waves pounding the shoreline mean a major storm is brewing. The stench of rotting seaweed and dead fish makes her nauseous. However, she sees the incredible beauty in this wind and water carved fantastic landscape, while he just sees another barrier to keep people out of his life. (Good grief, I think I just came up with a clichéd Gothic novel…) Familiarity doesn’t always imply good.

Use your character’s mood to establish setting (and to set the mood with your reader).  Let’s go back to our poor heroine trudging along that beach and take out the rich widower. From her vantage point on the beach she can determine that she’s halfway between her car on the shoulder of the road and the imposing house on the cliff. As she walks along the beach, different sea birds wheel overhead. The wind off the water is invigorating, and scented with the tang of salt. The surf pounding into the massive boulders jutting into the water and along the shoreline booms as it slaps the weathered and intricately carved black rock. She laughs at herself as she trips over a partially buried large piece of driftwood. Pleasant, isn’t it? She’s on her way to a new job and this colors everything she looks at.
Now, let’s change her mood. She’s still halfway between her car and the house, but her car is broken down. She’s got no way to call the owner of the massive, bleak looking house that looms over the cliff side. The wind is biting, hurling sea spray and sand into her face. The birds overhead shriek as black clouds encroach on this stretch of beach and she can smell the rain that is imminent. Falling to her knees when she trips over what is suspiciously reminiscent of a sailing ship’s prow buried by the relentless wind piling sand against it, the black rocks rounded by eons of wind, surf, and sand appear to be grave markers, noting the loss of life that has happened so often on this bleak, wind-swept, and unforgiving stretch of shore. Your character’s mood will determine how the setting is described.

The five senses reveal setting. Different senses evoke different reactions. Visual information is processed primarily at the cognitive level. In other words, when our character reveals the scene in terms of visual input, our readers will usually react at an intellectual level. Sound, smell, and touch all evoke sensory responses and emotion. Smell has been determined to have the strongest attachment to memory. Touch gets romance writers a whole lot more mileage than sound. Taste is the toughest to incorporate into writing, but it can be done. Show your reader what your characters are seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching and you will establish the setting without reading like a travel-brochure.

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