Writing Q&A 6: Setting; mixed metaphors
Published: October 11, 2006
|Setting doesn't seem all that important. As long as the reader has an idea of where it happens, isn't that enough?|
Sometimes that can be enough. Dorothy Parker's short story "Here We Are" features newlyweds on the train heading to their honeymoon. They're both anxious about their first night as a married couple. Parker establishes the setting at the beginning:
The train had leaped at curves and bounded along straightaways, rendering balance a praiseworthy achievement and a sporadic one; and the young man had pushed and hoisted and tucked and shifted the bags with concentrated care.
Once the setting has been established, Parker pretty much leaves it alone and just lets the couple interact with each other. (They have a lot to say in this dialogue-heavy story, but much of the real communication takes place underneath the dialogue, in subtext.)
Often, though, setting gets more play in fiction and deservedly so, as it has a great many uses. Setting can influence the plot, as it does in ZZ Packer's "Brownies," where two troops of Brownies--one group black, the other white--share the same bathroom at a camp. When one girl accuses another of racial name-calling, conflict ensues with surprising discoveries. And it all grows from the two troops inhabiting the same bathroom, under the radar of the adult leaders.
Setting can also create mood. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," the reader is invited into Dr. Heidegger's study along with four aging characters:
It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases. ... Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton.
Certainly, this study is a strange place that inspires foreboding. I don't know that I would willingly submit to the sort of "experiments" that go on here. But the four aging characters do, and the result creates as much unease as the setting.
Setting can even cut to the very core of a moment or character to reveal deeper meaning. In Edwidge Danticat's "Night Women," a prostitute in Haiti sees "the stars peeking through the small holes in the roof that none of my suitors will fix for me, because they like to watch a scrap of the sky while lying on their naked backs on my mat."
These holes solidify her role with these men. They visit her to be pleased and do not think beyond that experience to the rainy days when she might suffer leaks, or summer nights when bugs are a nuisance as she tries to sleep.
Setting is a versatile and powerful tool. It can simply place the characters in the moment, but why stop there, when it can do so much more?
(By the way, all of the stories I just cited are contained in an excellent short-story anthology called Fiction Gallery.)
|What is a mixed metaphor? |
Figurative language can create beauty, enhance meaning, and clarify a difficult or unique view on the world. It can be so much fun, in fact, that you can easily get carried away. Mixed metaphors are a common slipup in figurative language, and they're a sure mark of the writer losing control of the language.
A metaphor takes two seemingly unrelated subjects and draws a comparison between the two, treating them as equals: "The moon was a sickle." (This is different than a simile, which usually uses "like" or "as" to compare the subjects. You also have to watch for mixing similes.) A mixed metaphor is one that gets confused, using two competing comparisons:
At first she was a weighted barge, then a sunflower tracking the light.
The metaphor starts out on water with a boat and ends up on land with a flower, leaving the reader with a confused and scattered image. This could be revised to unify the imagery and create an extended metaphor:
At first she was a reluctant bud, then a sunflower tracking the light.
Some mixed metaphors can be particularly tricky to identify because they contain "dead" metaphors, ones that have been so overused they've lost their figurative qualities, such as the phrase "tie up loose ends." This metaphor was once fresh, but has become so common that listeners hear its meaning--to finish what's left undone--rather than picture the action. Here's an example of this kind of mixed metaphor:
Even though no one was supportive of his choice, he stepped up to the plate and dove right in.
It starts off with a baseball metaphor and ends with diving. You've got to invent a pretty nifty suit and an elaborate set of rules to participate in a sport that combines both. Until then, they don't belong in the same comparison.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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