1, 2, 3, Activate: The Secret To Writing Setting
A farmhouse, a beach, the principal’s office, church. These are the kinds of places we think about when we think about setting. We choose a location for our scene and then we contemplate what sensory details we might incorporate to describe it. We consider the lighting, the weather, the color of the furniture. But most of the time we don’t consider deeply enough.
Setting is not just a place in which characters are pinned down to keep them from floating off into the ether. And writing setting should not be a static description of the characters’ surroundings. If you want your setting to help forward the plot, reveal character, convey mood, or any number of other narrative functions it can perform, you need to activate it. Here are some ideas that will keep your setting from amounting to mere backdrop or scenery.
Idea 1: Pick An Unusual Place
Instead of having characters dialogue in kitchens, cars, and offices, place them somewhere less familiar to your readers. If you think on it a little, your story will provide you with unique possibilities.
In this excerpt from Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams, a young girl wanders into her funeral director father’s embalming room:
“…and then I was inside, the room cold, the shiny floor tiles continuing up the walls. I couldn’t take my eyes off the metal table in the center of the room or the heaping mound on top of it, draped in a sheet.
I set my foot inside the perfect square of one tile and let the other land beside it. A strange and powerful scent drew me deeper into the room. A scent I’d known all my life from my father’s hands.”
Her father discovers her, of course, and they talk. The powerful realizations the girl has about life and death and her father could have happened in another setting, like the front porch. But placing the conversation in a mortuary, a place you’d not expect to see a child, gives the scene resonance and interest.
Idea 2: Defamiliarize The Setting
If your scene is set in a more usual place, try to avoid saying what just anybody might say about it. When writing setting, go for the unexpected description, choosing rare and specific details.
Look at how Elizabeth Strout describes women sitting in an office in her novel Amy and Isabelle:
“…the heat was relentless and the fans rattling in the windows seemed to be doing nothing at all, and eventually the women ran out of steam, sitting at their big wooden desks with their legs slightly apart, lifting the hair from the back of their necks.”
Strout resists using generic language like “the office was hot” or “the women were sweaty.” The more specific you can get, the more your setting will feel like a one-of-a-kind place.
Idea 3: Bring History With it
No place is history-free. And the history of a place can provide essential context to your story. Think about how you might employ brief descriptions of a place to activate whatever knowledge your readers already have.
Toni Morrison uses this opening passage in Sula, a novel set in Jim Crow-era Ohio.
“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”
Morrison does not need to go on about urban renewal or race relations in America. Readers will bring to the story their own understanding of history and even a brief mention of a place’s past can infuse a setting with meaning.
Idea 4: Let Your Setting Be An Antagonist
A great way to add drama to your story is to have your character be at odds with the setting. If you think of your setting as one of the characters too, you can give it the chance to be the bad guy.
Margaret Verble’s Maud’s Line begins with two children in a farmyard who’ve just heard an injured cow bawling down by the river:
“…they both ran straight toward the pump to get to the pasture below the ridge where the howling was coming from…they were scared and hurrying, so they climbed the barbed wire just past the pump, and Lovely snagged his sleeve, leaving behind a piece of blue cotton waving like the flag of a small foreign country. Maud did worse than that. She snagged her leg below the knee at the back, opening a tear deep at its top and three inches long.”
Verble lets her characters come into conflict with the setting and the setting wins, if only for an instant. The moment is tense and the reader wonders if the kids have what it takes to get up and keep going.
Idea 5: Maximize Atmosphere
The key to writing setting that your readers can immerse themselves in is to know how you want them to feel. Before you write or during revision, list the feelings related to a scene and then decide how you might convey them.
In his ghostly carnival novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury effectively conveys a sense of menace and danger.
“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.”
Notice how Bradbury chooses words— sneaking, stomped, great beast, terrible teeth—that help create a feeling of dread.
Remember, a little goes a long way. Do you need a page of description of your elementary school lunchroom or might the smell of floor wax and a hundred open milk cartons be enough to activate the setting for your reader? As long as you know your purpose when you’re writing setting, little bits here and there can be enough. Make your setting specific. Give it a life of its own. Activate it.