So, I’m Andi and I’m a setting whore.
That is, I love me some setting. I love a setting that an author threads into a story in ways that make me feel the local flavor and color, see myself walking down a particular street, and enjoy a view the main character does. I love a story in which setting comes alive, as in Alexandra Fuller‘s astonishing works about Africa and Wyoming. I also love a story in which setting is a strong secondary character — a vehicle for the other characters, like Carl Hiaasen‘s Florida or Tony Hillerman‘s Southwest.
It’s also hard to write setting well. You don’t want it to weigh down your narrative, but you want it to stand out when it needs to. Maybe you want it to confine your characters, like in a dungeon. Or a cave in a blizzard. Or a snobby cocktail party. Maybe you want it to liberate them, like a distant river that marks the boundary to the kingdom of Rin, where your characters will find sanctuary from the evil queen of Tandix. Or the sight of an island after a long voyage at sea. Or a view of home from a mountaintop.
Could be you want it to instill fear in your characters, like the Grexen Swamps within which dwell the legendary Faljin trolls. Or that really dark, creepy subway tunnel from which just emanated a scream. Or the gleaming white of the official’s hall, where judgment will be meted out.
Or you want it to make your characters feel safe and loved. Like in grandma’s kitchen, which always smells like enchiladas or maybe fried chicken and okra. Or your pickup truck, which you’ve had for years and that has gotten you out of lots of tight spots. It still looks good, even after all these years.
You see why setting is important? It influences what your characters are and, in some cases, who they are. It can change your characters — make them rise to an occasion or fail. It can create adversity (think about the recent Robert Redford movie All Is Lost) or offer succor. Think about the rich settings of The Lord of the Rings movies, or of the Star Wars movies. Setting isn’t just landscape. Think about the movie Misery in which the character is held prisoner in a house.
Setting isn’t just a backdrop. It’s a vehicle for characterization and narrative. And it’s also an intrinsic part of a character. And it’s not just something you see. Setting has sounds, smells, tastes. It evokes feelings. So when you’re writing setting, think about that, too. So let’s go chat a bit more about this, shall we?
I did a master class last year at the GCLS conference on setting.
Specifically, I used post-apocalyptic scenarios to get people thinking about surroundings and landscape in different ways. When you set a story in a place like that, the setting is a main character, and the other characters are forced to interact with it, to pay attention to it in ways they didn’t prior to the apocalyptic events, and they have to come to a new understanding of how their surroundings can help or hurt.
I figured that getting people to think about an extreme setting would help them get new perspectives about description, and how people interact with it. In a post-apocalyptic world, the first thing you’re going to notice as a character is, well, the world. The setting. The blown-out buildings, the destruction.
I showed several images, and as a class we wrote 5-10 things about each image, about what the images made us feel, and what they made us think about. I asked participants to engage their other senses. What might they hear in such a setting? Smell? What about their intuitive senses? Would they be creeped out? Sad? Anxious? How might who they are as people (age, background) influence what aspects of the setting they pick up? Then we discussed how different people (characters) would react to their surroundings and to other characters in the various images. The final exercise was an out-of-workshop thing — write an initial scene whose setting is a post-apocalyptic world, 500-1000 words.
That’s always a useful writing exercise, especially if you’re not someone who normally reads or thinks about post-apocalyptic settings. I’m one of those weird people who does, but I also pay attention to my surroundings, no matter where I am, and I’m constantly envisioning stories and characters (like movie sets) everywhere I go. It’s important as a writer to have experiences out in the real world, so get out there and think about your surroundings and how some of your characters might operate in them, or what kind of story you could put there.
And as another writing/changing your perspective kind of exercise, below are some links that will take you to images of abandoned buildings and, in some cases, whole towns/cities. Look at those images (which really do feel post-apocalyptic) and think about what they might have looked like before time and disuse brought them to their current states. And think about them now, and what kind of story you could set there. Images like this always get me thinking.
Apropos of recent events, here are 30 images of abandoned Olympic venues (before and after).
I love some of the images on this website. It is what it says: photos of abandoned places (with some before and after).
These are creepy, haunting, amazing. 31 photos of abandoned places.
Great LiveJournal where people share photos of abandoned places.
Distractify has a lot of these (the first link is from there). Here are 38 images of super haunting abandoned places.
And THIS PLACE amazes me. Bennett School for Girls, abandoned.
And now, some tips to help you write setting.
Tameri Guide for Writers on setting.
Four ways to bring your settings to life.
How to engage all your senses in setting.
Some writing prompts for setting.
There you go. Like the real estate adage, LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. WHERE your characters are is just as important as when and who.
Happy writing, happy reading, and laissez les bons temps rouler!