Setting the mood
With a strong sense of place, you can reveal your characters’ emotions and convey the proper tone for your story
Published: August 3, 2011
The breeze around that vast, chalky cliff where the suicide jumped off last Thursday, or the plain picket fence with staves that look suspiciously like knives: You can tell that the writer knows the value of a good detail when even the setting is gripping.
Unfortunately, setting is usually the ignored poor relation in the writing family, that which the reader flips through to get to the action. Yet it often bulks huge in popular fiction: a murder set in 19th-century China, or a simple class lesson—in prison.
Setting may be literally where a story is set, but it’s also when and how. Setting is the precondition of a story, though it may emerge as your story develops or may even come after, as a surprise. In “Columbus Was a Dope,” a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, we see that the characters are in a bar, but at the end, we learn that it’s on the moon.
Every narrative has a setting, even if it’s set nowhere—that’s a choice, too. Don’t think that because you’re deliberately hazy on the background you’re achieving universality.
One standard approach is to use the setting to suggest mood, perhaps foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a look at the perhaps-too-famous opening of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.” No protection; only one way out. When the man and woman in the story start to talk over two beers, the valley, the train station there, and the cantina in the station all convey a sense of unprotected, vulnerable space.
Even a small breadth of narrative has space for setting. Consider Raymond Carver, one of Hemingway’s spiritual and stylistic heirs, and his classic short-short “Popular Mechanics,” where a couple end up quarreling violently over custody of a baby. It’s all of one and a half pages long and operates by extreme compression of description, yet Carver opens with a description of the weather: “Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.” Clearly, more is going on here than just a wintry scene, and in fact Carver’s last sentence here may be nudging the reader a bit too much. The point is that readers can be counted on to make connections between emotional weather and the rain outside.
John Ruskin once attacked the Romantic poets for having their backdrops too closely reflect the characters’ feelings, calling it the pathetic fallacy, but it remains an authorial shorthand for establishing tone, and in fact people do correspond to their environment. That’s one reason setting matters.
In my next column, I’ll share my tips for selecting details to establish an effective, even seductive, setting.
David Galef, the director of the
creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless
eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story
collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books this fall.