Friday, April 17, 2009

Sense of Place: Setting as Character

Setting is as important to your writing as plot, character and emotion—it is a part of all those things. The world is sensory—one of green grass and white houses…purring kittens and thundering trucks…Chanel #5 and curling wood smoke…fresh cold orange juice and hot crisp bacon…silk’s rich smoothness and the harsh grit of volcanic ash.

Though some writers provide only the barest details about the setting of their stories or novels, most writers have a tendency to describe it too much in depth. We’ve all skimmed over long paragraphs of detailed description that doesn’t really mean much to us, right?

As a reader, I like to have enough details about the setting to know where the characters are, in what time period the story takes place, and what the place looks like. If it takes place in a barber shop, I'd like to know that. But unless the barber shop has some unusual decorations or is in an unusual location, I really don't need the author to describe it. We’ve all seen barber shops, and they basically look the same.

Reader Involvement. This is one of the key secrets to making setting a character: physical, sensory descriptions of the story world allow the reader to experience those surroundings through his own imagination, as if he were “really there,” seeing, hearing, breathing, tasting and feeling. Use the five senses: Sight, Smell, Sounds, Taste & Touch.

Context has an impact on setting. A beautiful sunny day by itself will seem unordinary; but after leaving a haunted house, a beautiful day will seem like paradise and a character will revel in it. To give a setting the greatest impact, consider preceding or following it with one that starkly contrasts it. Character goes from light into blackness; from a small prison cell to an opulent mansion; from shark-infested waters to the dry safety of a boat.

In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain,” a group of men are stranded on a planet where it rains incessantly. There is no shelter, and the rain drives the men mad as they desperately search for a “solarium,” a building that would provide shelter. At the end of the story, the sole survivor finds it. After 30 pages of rain pounding on his head, he enters a building, which is quiet, dry, warm and bright. The feeling of satisfaction this setting brings—for the character and the reader—is exquisite. This is because of its context in the work, because of the miserable setting that preceded it.

Character is significantly linked to setting. Place can reveal personality and mood. Another KEY: Show the setting from your character's point-of-view. Everything you write should be colored by your point-of-view character's mood and feelings. For instance, a character who is having a bad day probably wouldn't notice the flower starting to bloom on the plant beside her desk. But she probably would notice the smudge on the computer screen, the annoying smudge that always seems to be where she needs to look.

Story unity: If your story line is complex with multiple subplots, and you have a wide variety of characters, setting can provide a consistent backdrop for what may seem to be unrelated story developments. Example: A clock tower on Main Street—characters can meet under the old clock; someone could hear it striking the hour as time runs out in a tense situation; description of the tower dark against the rainy sky can set a mood; traffic could be backed up from some point, all the way to the clock tower corner.

Suspense or plot can be advanced by setting. In the Bradbury example, the incessant rain heightens the suspense by threatening the men’s very survival & actually acts as a character in killing most of them.

Emotion: The obvious or cliché is the classic murder mystery set in an old mansion on a stormy night or the dark, gloomy setting of the English moors in Gothic romance.

Excerpt from The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“… I woke up ... I sat up. I was trembling all over and drenched in sweat. Long shadows, nightmare light. I could see some kids playing outside in the snow, silhouetted in black against the dreadful, salmon-colored sky. Their shouts and laughter had, at that distance, an insane quality.”

From Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer:

“The moon was high now, and smaller, and she felt her grief shrinking with it. Or not shrinking, never really changing, but ceding some of its dominance over the landscape, exactly like the moon. She wondered why that was, what trick of physics made the moon appear huge when it first came up, but then return to normal size after it disentangled itself from the tree branches.”

Theme: Setting can become a central symbol or metaphor. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the river setting becomes more than a river, it is the symbol for Huck’s journey into manhood.

Sometimes a setting can be so overwhelmingly important in development of the plot and the characters’ lives that it seems to take on a life of its own. In stories of the sea, the sea often becomes the central antagonist. In my books, the weather and climate plays a big part in the plot, affecting the characters’ lives and emotions.

Remember: Whenever you stop to describe something in fiction, the progress of the story stops. Readers want movement, so every pause to describe or present a lot of factual background can weaken or kill the reader’s interest. The key is to sprinkle sensory descriptions throughout the story, rather than “dumping” them in great gobs.

Think about:

How do you want the reader to feel while experiencing the story?

What is the general mood you hope to convey from the setting?

How do your character’s emotions color what he sees?

What setting details impact both the character’s feelings & general mood of story?


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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  1. Great post for me to read today! Thank you for your wisdom.

  2. "show the setting from the character's point of view." Indeed. It is very useful to use the details the character notices to underscore the character's issues, personality, mood, etc.

    I know what you mean about most writers overdescribing. I do that all the time and have to edit it out later. I let myself go on a first draft and then have to remove it later, but it helps me to get my head into the place. Also, because I write sf and fantasy, it helps me world build. Otherwise I'd keep a rein on it a bit more. Overwriting actually helps me in the draft stage, most of the time.

  3. What a fantastic post, Heidi. There are a lot of writers who over describe, or go off on tangents intended to draw the reader into the moment only to alienate them from it instead. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic! I enjoyed reading it.


  4. Great post. The setting can become like another character in the book. And just like you don't tell us everything about a character the first time he appears on screen, you don't have to spend a page describing the scenery either.

    Wonderful advice with examples!

  5. Very good post. Makes the points so they stay with us. Thanks.

  6. Very true! My 2nd novel, A GRAND SEDUCTION, is set on the East Coast, and the Delaware river setting is featured almost like a character, changing with the emotional tides of the book, reflecting the plot going on around it. In the Twilight series, the rainy setting is pivotal because it provides a place where vampires can mainstream into society.

    I don't think setting should be overblown--some might smite me for saying I found JRR Tolkien went overboard with pages-long descriptions of trees and such--but it can and should often take on a life of its own, to complete a 3-dimensional, practically "popup" book and enhance the experience.


  7. Heidi,

    You've given me a great deal to think about.



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