Move it: How to activate your setting
Strong verbs and personification can energize your story’s sense of place
Published: October 5, 2011
Why do so many readers consider setting boring? It’s just landscape or weather; it’s in the background. It doesn’t move. It’s described, and then the real action begins. For a more kinetic feel, use active verbs and personify the backdrop. Here’s the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”:
Far away, in a watery vista between the jagged edges of pale bluish houses, which have tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way), the blurred Mount St. George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece dreams of seashells.
A lot to see here, but it’s not passive. In fact, the amount of sheer liveliness is astonishing. Besides the fact that Nabokov has an artistic eye (like John Updike and others, he once aspired to be a painter), he has a yen for animating the most inert of objects, from buildings to trees to postcards and even shells. Who knows what whelk husks dream of? Nabokov seems to.
Close, imaginative scrutiny helps a great deal. Take a look at your desk, the basis for a typical descriptive setting. Ordinarily you might say there are pens and pencils in a cup, but look closer and note that the No. 2 pencils are at war with the antique fountain pen, which in its sticky nib has collected all the pink eraser crumbs as if it wore a beard.
Yet many writers shy away from animating their setting, possibly from the days when personification was seen as a cheesy, sentimental metaphor, as in “the dear stars in their white nightgowns.” But it can be done with flair and humor: “The hall mirror wearily reflected its master 10 times a day.” Is this fantasy, breathing life into dead objects? Let’s just call it a metaphor, and note that you’re creating art.
The real point is to avoid the flat tableau. Here’s Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49: “She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby.” So much more evocative than saying what color the door’s painted.
I have an assignment for an intermediate-level fiction workshop, where I ask students to give me two pages of a setting written all in action sentences. Not “The chairs were at the table” but “The chairs hugged the table”; not “The houses were painted white” but “It was as if some monochromatic moron had plastered all the houses the same dead white.” It’s challenging, but worth it: Some of the scenes that come from this exercise find their way into stories, and readers invariably say, “I really like how you set that piece.” Now, that’s a response worth striving for.
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 November.||