Setting can be quite picturesque, even seductive, but one way or another, you want your backdrop to be effective. So don’t stay too long with a panorama, no matter how breathtaking, but do what the film camera does and soon enough focus in deep: not just the cliff but the small, restless white birds that flutter about the base. Setting isn’t flat: See the background, but also point out the foreground. Note not just the objects but also the relations among them: What are those birds quarreling over, and is that what I think it is?
What should you include and omit? Selection of detail is key in a worthwhile setting, yet so many authors belabor the obvious here. You wouldn’t go on about a character having two eyes and a mouth, so why go on and on about a sunny day without a cloud in the sky and so forth? And while we’re on the subject: Avoid the clichés of the incredibly messy room (and the bare white room), the quaint hometown, the bustling metropolis, and so forth.
It’s common practice to establish a setting
that will contrast with or complement the plot or characters or theme. If the plot features a bank heist that goes awry, is it set in San Francisco with hordes of cops, or in the small town of Begonia with just a deputy sheriff? If the main character is a woman insanely jealous of her husband, is it set in redneck country or in urban squalor? If the theme is that a man learns to trust no one, is that lesson set in a Wild West shoot-’em-up town, Renaissance Florence with its court intrigues, or a homespun village with honest people whom the man simply can’t abide?
Some stories are just setting and the characters’ interactions with it, as in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.” Whatever you do, consciously choose setting and use it, rather than letting it simply hang there passively. The setting can even be personified, as in E.M. Forster’s Howards End
: “The city of London was alive.”
For an extra kick, try synesthesia
, tangling two senses so that a pockmarked pavement looks bitter, or that loud punk band sounds orange. Don’t lump the whole setting into one or two pages but stretch it out, letting it be discovered as the characters move about. Note how a change in viewpoint can alter the setting: Her idea of a dump is his idea of a swell place to sack out.
The hardest—but perhaps most rewarding—setting to render is one that’s all too well-known, but in such depth or from such an unfamiliar slant that the reader discovers something new. Noticing what others don’t is a trick useful in both art and life.
In my next column, the last on place, I'll show you how to create an active, not passive, setting.