Friday, March 21, 2008

Setting to Illustrate Conflict and Character

I remember setting as the bread and butter of my days in Reading class. Setting was the most wonderful (and most analyzed) part of every fiction story we read. Were there trees? What did they look like? How do they make you feel?

As you move up in the writing world, so to speak, setting begins to take a back seat in writing classes. Not that good setting is easy to write, but it becomes neglected as a tool. Setting is usually the one part of any story that is most easily grasped and understood. If you read a book that has too much setting, you still know exactly what's going on in the story - you can see everything. If there isn't enough setting, then you don't see and understand the imagined world. Oh well. It wasn't a very interesting story to begin with.

So we have a dichotomy with the teaching of how to write setting. One the one hand, it's taught early because it is so "simple" to understand. As a child, I couldn't have told you the first thing about character development, but I could read a story and describe the setting. On the other hand, setting is somewhat ignored later because a story can survive without it. In my experience, workshop stories often have problems with the setting (most of my own stories have setting issues, as well), but readers don't give much feedback on how to fix those problems. Larger issues take precedence. Is the main character fully realized? Do we see the conflict in light of the protagonist's inner development? "Oh, by the way, I wasn't clear on where this story was taking place - was it in the hospital room? Okay, if you can just fix that for next time." Sometimes we hear "you know, the description of the flowers in the vase on the bedside table was a little too much exposition." Okay, too much setting, so what? Don't you want to know where the story takes place?

Fortunately, we have a yardstick to judge whether you have "too little" or "too much" or "just enough" setting. In any work of fiction, setting must contribute to the story. It can set the tone, it can establish the character's mood, it can be a part of the action, and sometimes it acts almost as a character itself. The task of the writer is to identify the role played by the setting and to ensure that the setting fulfills that role without going overboard. The best way to understand this is through example.

Tone and mood are relatively straightforward. Let's say you have a detective novel - a young girl is kidnapped and held for ransom. Is the kidnapper a terrible villain? Are the parents worried? Is there a strong possibility that the girl is already dead? You can hint at all these things through your choice of setting:

The parents, they lived up on a mansion at the edge of the bay. I drove up in the rain. All I could see through the storm was the road - the sky and water to my right merged into a wall of black, and the mountain on the left looked like it might fall in any time. Lightning flashed - suddenly I saw the house, white like a corpse in the rain. The back end was a box floating in space over the bay. I figured it was only a matter of time before the whole place slipped away into the ocean.

Dark and brooding, with rain for tears - it's blunt, and such a setting builds the expectation that something terrible has happened or will soon happen. But you can go for a more subtle effect. Say the kidnapping happens in a small town - you may want to give the impression of innocence lost:

One by one, the clowns gave out balloons - long puppets twisted into lions and parrots and puppy dogs. The cotton candy vendor smiled and pointed over to her treats - clouds of syrup sweet pink and blue and yellow waited. A hand-lettered sign with a smiley face advertised "Hot Dogs, Too!" I looked away. In the corner of her stall was the garbage stuffed to overflowing. A pile of cigarette butts had been left on the counter by the ketchup. Obviously, no one had told these people the news.

What do cigarettes have to do with kidnapping? Nothing. But through the eyes of the protagonist, they take on a new meaning. Just as people always remember the clouds at funerals and the sun at weddings, your protagonist will see the world through the lens of mood. Beware of clumsy techniques in writing - it's rarely good to simply tell the reader exactly what the protagonist feels. "I was frustrated because the girl had disappeared, and it was my watch" abuses the reader's intellect. Instead, by focusing on setting, your narrative accomplishes two tasks as once. In the example above, it's clear how the protagonist feels - the readers don't yet know that the girl is gone, but they don't need to. By withholding this information and establishing a dark tone to "the news," you build immediate suspense. As you continue to answer questions and build more suspense, you will gain the trust and more importantly the interest of your readers. If you tell your readers everything right away, then there's nothing left for them to read.

Naturally, once you've got your readers hooked in the opening lines, you need to keep their attention. Setting alone cannot do that (unless of course you're writing a pure landscape...though painters normally have better luck with that than writers). Reader interest requires action, and setting is crucial for establishing the context of events. In speculative fiction genres, setting is often half the story - what would the science fiction masterpiece be without starships and plasma cannons? How can one read a fantasy tale without magic? Some authors confuse the need for setting with an excuse for exposition. When you need setting to establish your story, incorporate it with action:

Deidre climbed faster. The ladder's narrow rungs pinched her skin and bruised her shins. She could hear them below - their voices echoed up the narrow shaft. They couldn't have been closer than twenty feet - they sounded practically on top of her. She pulled herself up too fast, and the spin of the ship knocked her into the wall. Dazed, she kept up her climb.

Compare that to the following exposition:

The decks of the ship were linked by a ladder shaft. The ladder had metal rungs, and the shaft's interior carried echoes across decks. Coriolis forces from the ship's spin prevented objects from falling in a straight down the shaft.

Both examples provide the same setting details, but the first offers excitement and danger while the second provides a description without reference. Why should the reader care that the shaft carries an echo? If the reader has no reason to care about a detail, that detail will be forgotten, even if that detail holds critical importance later (and you don't want your reader leafing back to figure out "what the heck?" after getting to the exciting part).

There is, of course, a drawback to incorporating all setting into action - a good action scene is often too quick to adequately explain the setting. Readers may become confused by the spin of the ship knocking Deidre into the wall, and breaking out of the narrative to explain Coriolis forces interrupts the action. You can use judicious exposition establish the setting you need for upcoming action scenes. Build the tone and mood of the story tone to make details memorable:

Deidre avoided the long shafts between decks. The cramped metal walls and the narrow ladder left her claustrophobic. The echoes of voices from the other decks made her imagine ghosts inhabiting the ship. Most of all, though, she didn't like the Coriolis forces, as the engineer called them. She understood how the spinning ship provided a sense of gravity, but she didn't understand why nothing could fall in a straight line. She had tried it with a quarter, dropping it down the center of the longest shaft. The quarter's ricochets off the walls had nauseated her with a sickening ping!

Finally, we come to perhaps the most complex use of setting - establishing a world or a place with the force of character. You can cheat with personification, but most readers distrust stories told with "the glowering eyes of the thunderclouds" and "the chatter of the power lines as they exchanged the gossip of electrons." When setting takes on the element of character, if must fill the duties of a character from the background - it must drive plot, is must react to events in the story, and it should give opinion of its own. And it must accomplish these tasks without a body or dialogue. To pull off this feat, you must successfully provide your setting with a believable voice of its own. The key is in the interaction between your characters and their surroundings - the reactions of the characters become the window for viewing setting's character traits:

Turtle stared up at the clouds gathering overhead. He pointed
the end of his walking stick at a funnel cloud beginning to come

"You've angered the sky," he said.

John rolled his eyes. "What, you think global warming will go away all on its
own? We expected the mirror to leave a storm front."

Turtle lowered his stick, leaned his weight upon it. Through the ground, he
could feel the vibrations ofdistant lightening. It struck the Earth
harder, now, than before. Like a freight train, the sound of it
carried through rock and soil. It was only a matter of time before
this new lightening found a city for its hunger.

"Look at the bright side," John said. "All this lightning's a great source of
renewable energy."

Here, the raging storms are a reaction to something the characters have done, and we can see that John's last line ensures an ongoing conflict. Can the sky really be angry? No, of course not. But for the story, Turtle will perceive it as angry, and Turtle's reaction to this setting establishes both his and the storm's attitude.

Ultimately, mastery of setting in your writing will come down to obeying the one rule: everything in your writing must work in terms of the story. Too much setting will drown a story in detail just as easily as an undeveloped sense of place will leave the reader thirsting for context. Use the examples here as a guide, but push forward in your own direction. If you fear that you are writing too much setting, keep going - you can always edit later, and sometimes it is harder to write in new setting than it is to pare down the words already on the page. Conversely, if you fear that you are not writing enough, keep going in the direction you are on. In the first draft, you are looking for the core of your story, the essence, and sometimes an aspect like setting gets left for later as you sketch out your plot and characters. Whatever it is you are writing, write it - that alone is the only sure way to success.

1 comment:

alex@scribophile said...

Ryan, this is really great advice. Using setting to reflect mood or give insight into characters is one of those things that happens so often and so subtly in a lot of writing that oftentimes we forget that it's a lot of conscious effort to actually pull it off. It'd be interesting to go back and read some of my favorite books with this trick in mind and see how it affects me as a reader :)