Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Notes on Craft: Setting



Yesterday, I was reading Natalie Whipple’s post on World Building where she discusses how to write about setting in a novel.  She suggests focusing on the most important details, those that have immediate relevancy, that matter most to the character, what stands out to them, or what might foreshadow later events.  I think her approach is right on the money, but I also think she left out an important factor:  Emotion.

Setting in a novel is more than just the physical surroundings.  It is the social and cultural aspects of the period, the fashions people wear and why they wear them, the ideas the characters draw upon, and the historical and spiritual perspective or lens through which they view the world.

Most importantly, setting not just the place or even the time, it’s how the characters of a novel are affected by it, how they feel about their surroundings.  They must have a functioning affiliation with it.  The writer should permit the character to both discover those emotions then infuse them into the story.  That is what makes the setting important, to have immediate relevancy.  It is also what makes the character’s world come alive for the reader. 

A writer can spend pages describing what the countryside looks like on a breezy fall afternoon, but unless I know exactly how the character feels about all those details, how those details are affecting them at that moment or relates to their past, it will fall flat.  Because while I do want to know where the character lives, I don’t truly care unless I know the character does.

I’m not the greatest writer of setting.  In fact, when it comes to description, I’m probably mediocre, at best.  The first few drafts of my novel had very little detail in regard to place, and virtually none on time.  But as I progressed, I kept adding layers, including details about San Francisco, where the majority of story takes place.  Yet I never really describe what The City looks like.  What I did do was infuse the protagonist’s feelings about the place in which he lives.  From that was borne a symbol that repeatedly popped up when the character was frustrated, melancholy, or facing disaster.  That symbol is fog.  It is a legendary pillar of San Francisco’s lore.  It is also cold and oppressive.

My protagonist is a Brit, a native Londoner whose parents transplanted him and his toddler brother to Melbourne, Australia when he was twelve.  As a young adult, he yearns to return to London, but is distracted by a beauty with whom he falls in love while traveling through San Francisco.  He also falls for with The City, whose climate reminds him of London, where his fondest childhood memories are grounded.


He revels in his new-found freedom, his emancipation from his family overseas.  San Francisco becomes a symbol of his liberty.  But that independence is curtailed when his brother follows him to the States.  He becomes saddled with the chore of caring for his irresponsible sibling.  The fog becomes a symbol of his loss of autonomy.  And when his brother’s life is jeopardized by poor choices, forcing the protagonist into a life and death struggle to save him, the fog evolves to symbolize his battle.  It’s not until the end of the story that fog burns off, allowing the sun to return to his life.


The setting in my novel evolved into a character, rich with emotion.  This is the only way I know how to write setting.  The steep streets, the cable cars, the sparkling Bay, the vibrant cultures, none of that means anything until it means something to the characters.

So what does setting mean to you as a writer?  How do you infuse the character of a time and place into your stories?             
      

29 comments:

Donna K. Weaver said...

Oh, Nancy, I love this post. I'm so copying this to save as a reference. I have trouble with the physical descriptions of things and places, but I love the way you address it with emotion. I can do emotion.

"The steep streets, the cable cars, the sparkling Bay, the vibrant cultures, none of that means anything until it means something to the characters."

Truth!

Lisa L. Regan said...

Wow! That was so beautifully written. You make such excellent points. You know how I feel about setting--I don't want to hear about it unless the writer is using it to build effect or suspense. Like you said, it has to have some use in the story. I really love this post. I'm hoping to work on my setting failures in my WIP since I'm familiar with Philly.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That makes perfect sense, because the reader must feel through the characters.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great post! I agree. I did a post a while back on "Filtering through character" which became one of my most popular. It's basically the same thing. We have experience the place through the eyes of the MC. I'm glad you found my blog through Julie! :D

Lynda R Young said...

For me, setting is like another character in the story and all characters interact in some way :)

L.G.Smith said...

Yes! This is exactly how I like to draw my world. My stories are very character driven, and so, for me, descriptive details about place are meaningless (and kind of boring) without that emotional anchor or direct relation to plot.

Great post! (really). :)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This is a great post, setting has always been an important part of my writing. All aspects - weather, buildings, atmosphere... especially in my latest WIP. :)

Eva Gallant said...

I find your posts so informative! I'm glad I found your blog!

richardphughes@bellsouth.net said...

Good post on an important topic. I like your approach.

Carrie Butler said...

Well said, Nancy! I really enjoyed this. :)

Jennifer Hillier said...

I think this is one of your best posts yet!

I got nailed on setting in one of my writer's workshops, and it's definitely something I've struggled with. Because you're so right - as important as it to infuse setting into a story, the only way to make it feel real is to have your characters feel something about it. The emotional connection is key.

Brilliant, lady! :)

Alexis Bass Writes said...

I love your take on setting! I struggle with writing setting too, but you are so write about incorporating character emotions into it.

JeffO said...

I think it can become too easy to bog down in details and description of what a person or a place looks like. I like what you say here. Interesting to see how your character's view of the fog changes as his circumstances change.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Great post with great advice. I love what you wrote about the importance of how characters are affected by settings and how setting can (and should) evoke character emotions.

ladonna watkins said...

Great post. I have trouble with setting as well.

Joylene said...

Awesome advice. I know the word awesome is overused, but it's the first word that came to me after reading your post. Awesome. Why? Because authors forget this stuff. If the author is describing snow and snow and more snow, great, as long as the character is freezing them buns off and wondering why they ever left Florida.

Okay, I'm kidding, but still, the snow has to mean something to the narrator. He or she must look at it and feel. It's what they're feeling that I, as the reader, would love to know.

Bravo for bringing this up.

Laila Knight said...

Very well said, Nancy. I love the pictures, but it's true that unless we experience the scenery through someone else's eyes in writing, it all gets boring. I'm learning this while I've been editing lately. I'll be gone for the rest of the year, so Merry Christmas! :)

The Desert Rocks said...

Nancy I loved your description of the fog and how it represented elements that needed to lift in your character's life. You are a wonderful writer and I'm sure your book will be a huge success!

Jessie Humphries said...

Great post. I am always looking for ways to balance my tendency to be too detailed in setting. I have a habit of overdoing it, but I am getting better.

jamieayres said...

I love looking for settings that have their own big personality and will have emotional significance for my main character. In the YA I'm working on now, my protagonist has grown up in the bustle of NY city and is forced to move to a hick town in Florida, which eventually helps her recover her loss of innocence and childhood.

Thanks for a great blog:)

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius said...

Oooo I had never thought of world-building in quite these terms but you are absolutely correct. I need to re-examine my world-building attempts to see if I can make them better by including an emotional response to the setting. Great stuff and thanks for the follow!

klahanie said...

Hi Nancy,
What a superb and thoughtful posting! And after such notable comments from those esteemed folks who preceded me, there's little more that I can add.
Except perhaps a side note. Your protagonist has some similarities to me. Take London and replace San Francisco with Vancouver. I do love San Francisco and it brings back some fond memories of the time I drove, at the age of eighteen, from Lion's Gate to Golden Gate...
Setting is an integral part of any attempt at writing by shy and humble me.
Peaceful wishes and happy writing, my friend :)

Empty Nest Insider said...

San Francisco is such a beautiful and exciting place to set your story. I agree that a relationship between the characters, and the setting should be established in order to successfully frame your story. Very nicely written Nancy!

Donna Hole said...

I like how you make the setting as much a "character" in your story and the people.

....dhole

Lydia Kang said...

Setting is a bit hard for me too, I have to really work to visualize it well.

Joanne said...

I agree, there's no better way to bring a setting to life than to make that connection with the character. Seeing it through their eyes and their responses to it makes it so much more real. It's an important element to any story.

M Pax said...

I agree with you on the setting. It should enhance the characters and plot. Thomas Hardy was a master at that [one of my favorite writers] and something I have always strove to emulate. He was so poetic and his setting always matched what was going on with the character at the time.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great point about emotion and setting. It's a lot harder for the reader to feel something if the characters do not.

Julie Musil said...

It sounds to me like you do a great job at writing setting! I love it when a setting is like a character in the book. Like in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Loved it.