Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing the Setting Fiction Sketch

Setting.  It's the easiest aspect of fiction to identify.  The author describes a landscape or an object, and it's setting.  Deciding the importance of that setting to the story is somewhat more complicated, but it's an important consideration as you write your own fiction.
This post draws on "In the Cemetery where Al Jolson Is Buried" by Amy Hempel and "Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa" by Barry Hannah.  If you'd like, you can also visit my article "Setting to Illustrate Conflict and Character" from March 2008.  It goes a little more in-depth regarding the subtle effects for which setting is well-suited.
The first area of importance is the use of setting to establish place.  And this choice of place should reflect the themes and nature of your story.  A story about a New York City Girl becoming a "fish out of water" would probably be best set in a rural setting, away from the big city.  Amy Hempel's story about watching a friend die takes place mostly in a hospital, with short forays to the beach and the restaurant nearby - it wouldn't make much sense to have them experiencing death at Disney World, or going on a cruise.  At least not during these final days, when the friend is basically leashed to the IV drip.  Likewise, Barry Hannah's story wouldn't make much sense if "the genuine Elsworth" lived in a condo off Broadway - instead, we see his poverty and hopelessness through the stacks of beer in the fridge and the hubcap grill, through the way he sticks his foot through the porch.  These tragic details emphasize his loneliness, revealing why he would clean the house and prepare a barbecue for people who might not even come.

The age of the characters often determines the scope of your setting.  Stories about young children will often take place across their home, their neighbor's homes, and the park.  Teens tend to get out more - they have school, they Burger King, they have that haunted graveyard after curfew.  College provides a special realm of its own - an entire life can take place on a single campus, and that campus can provide lonely dorm rooms, crowded classrooms, imposing faculty offices, and raucous (or is it righteous?) parties.  For these pre-adult-life stories, a wide variety of conflicts are available, but the conflicts must almost always be resolved in places accessible to the main character.  For example, if it's a story about lost love - the really cute neighbor boy moves Indonesia with his parents - then the story can't simply have the girl moving to Indonesia to be with him.  Say she's 14 - she's old enough to have that desire to move, but she'd have no experience purchasing a house or finding a job overseas.  (though she can filch her mom's credit card and book herself a flight and get lost at Jakarta International...)

There are of course special considerations for science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, and international espionage stories (to name a few).  In stories like this - ones that go outside the realm of everyday realism - an unusual setting must be described in order to provide a believable place.  Adults, of course, have more "freedom of setting" than younger characters, but they are chained in their own ways to homes, jobs, and families, and the setting should reflect this.

After place, the next most important aspect of setting is tone.  This, perhaps, is hardest part to master.  It's largely a matter of diction - a train station can be "spacious, sleek, and efficient," or "cavernous, bare, and too quick."

Part of mastering the tone involves the use of specific details which relate directly to the plot at hand.  Let's say we wanted to really reveal a train station - it would be better to zoom in one one small corner and really explain it than to give a blanket description of the whole place:

Bill sat on the bench near the ticket counter.  His sole companion was a plastic ficus with dusty leaves.  On the floor, someone had spilled a milkshake.  The milkshake has been smeared across the tiles by a half-dozen footprints.  Earlier, a janitor had come by to throw out the trampled Cold Stone cup, but he left the real mess behind.
Note that these specific details have all been related back to Bill through proximity - all of these are things that he sees himself.  The dusty ficus is in fact "his sole companion."  There are tinges of loneliness with the irrepressible sense that this world simply doesn't care that Bill exists.  Now let's use this same setting to cast Bill in a very different light:

Bill sat on the edge of the bench near the ticket counter.  Someone brushed against the ficus, and he batted the dusty leaf out of his face.  Some idiot had spilled a milkshake across the floor - Bill shifted further down the bench to keep his wingtips out of the sticky mess.  He'd seen a janitor come by earlier to toss the crumpled Cold Stone cup, but the man had been too lazy to get a mop to clean the mess.

As you write, provide these specific setting elements and then have your characters respond react to them.  Zero in on where exactly your character is and what exactly he sees or experiences.

Finally, in your setting piece, strive to go a step further by turning the story into a multi-sensory experience.  Touch, taste, smell, and feel are often overlooked in stories, but these experiences provide the most intimate details for the human experience:

The ridged metal bench was cold and rough under Bill's butt.  Every time someone walked past the ficus, dust from the leaves made his eyes water with the need to sneeze.  Otherwise he couldn't smell it - the plant was as plastic and sterile as the the ticket counter.  But everything, now, stunk of sour milk.  Someone had dropped a Cold Stone shake across the floor - there was a squeak every time someone tried to step over the sludge only to slip instead.  And it made Bill's ears hurt, listening to this place - the feet clomping across the floor, the whistle of trains arriving and departing, the flick-flick-flick of the arrival schedule every few minutes.  And the janitor who came by to pick up the Cold Stone cup had been too lazy to clean up the sludge, so Bill had to smell the sickening-sweet artificial strawberry scent as he waited.  And, worst of all, he couldn't even smoke in here.  His mouth was already dry with the need for nicotine.  He could almost taste the smoke, he needed a cigarette so badly.

So there it is: set your place, set your tone, and use specific details which your characters can respond to.  If I can answer any questions, please let me know.



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