Setting and Place
For me, one of the worst things in writing is talking heads syndrome. Its where a writer hasn’t described where the characters are, or what is happening around them, so the reader has a sense of heads just talking at one and other in a void.
It’s important to anchor your readers in the setting, so they can develop a clearer picture of your story in their mind. However, setting isn’t just a backdrop for your characters to talk and move in. Setting tells a story. Setting can be a fantastic way to feed people information without dialogue or exposition. Setting sets the tone, adds to the wonder or tension and brings the story alive.
Settings Create Atmosphere
The setting helps greatly with the atmosphere of the scene. It can change the make readers feel safe or tense, prepare them for what is coming or give them vital information about the location and characters in it.
Every time you don’t use setting description to its potential, you are wasting an opportunity to immerse your reader. That’s not to say every scene needs a long description of the setting. However, take these three examples, all describing the same room:
There were candles burning in the den. There were two couches, a bookshelf and large TV.
This tells us what furniture is in the room. There is no atmosphere or emotion. Its rather boring, and contributes nothing but giving us very basic information.
Safe and exciting:
The den was lit with cheery, jumping candlelight. Two overstuffed leather couches would be perfect for reading in on cold winter days. The bookshelf was overflowing with titles, new and old, and the TV was so big, it took up half the wall, almost as good as a movie theatre.
In this version, most people reading will feel happy or inspired. They will want to be in the room, because most readers love a good reading space. Most people love a big TV too. The rooms sounds luxurious and like something we all inspire to have one day.
The den was cold and sallow in the flickering candlelight. Two overstuffed couches stood hulking on opposite sides of the room, like sagging, bloated monsters about to fight. The dusty bookshelf, spilled over with books, both forgotten and abandoned. The TV was the worst of all, a vast yawning blackness that took up almost the entire wall.
Same furniture, same room, very different feel. Instead of being happy and inspired, we feel tense. We don’t want to go near the TV or the couches. We certainly don’t want to curl up and read in there. The language here is telling us this is a bad place and something is probably going to go down.
When your characters enter a new location, ask yourself what the primary emotion of the scene is. Let your description of the scene lend to that. How you describe a setting should tell readers how they are going to feel and what they can expect. Priming the audience this way makes the final emotional impact of the scene much deeper.
When we go into a character’s personal space, their bedroom, their office, their car, we get to learn a lot about them, based on what we find there.
Take the following room description:
The child-sized chest of drawers was blue, and decorated with stickers of superheroes and trucks. Tiny army men and plastic dinosaurs were locked in a deadly dioramic battle on top, though many had spilled onto the floor, amid race-car tracks, soccer balls and dirty clothes that had missed the hamper. Lego and muddy sneakers peeped out from under the bed, along with one lone Barbie-doll, her hair shorn, her face half melted by a firecracker.
This could be the bedroom of a very average little boy—probably one with a sister who is going to scream the house down when she sees her doll.
What if we found out this was a little girl’s room? What would you know about her from her room? At the very least, she is a Tomboy. She likes boy’s things and if the Barbie doll is any indication, has a distain for girl’s things. Maybe she has brothers. Maybe she is trans and will later transition.
What if it was a forty-year-old man’s room instead? Is he mentally handicapped? What if everything was dusty and the door had been closed for a long time, the rest of the house inhabited only by a middle-aged couple who rarely talked or smiled?
What story are you telling when you describe your setting?
Giving Places A Sense Of Past And Future
A great tip for making your world seem more permanent, is to include details that give a setting a past and a future, a sense that they existed before the scene took place and will continue to exist after it is done.
For example, a flyer on a bulletin board that says: “Yoga Classes Start Next Tuesday” implies that there will be a Tuesday in the future. Chips in the surface of a table imply that it was used in the past, thus it must have a past.
There are thousands of ways to imply both past and future in scenes. Flowers not yet blooming, rust, wear and tear, mentioning what the setting is like in different seasons, or what it will be like when something transpires in the future. Juxtaposition between old and new, faded things, gaps were things are expected to be.
And little snippets of detail like this imply further detail. If a reader ‘sees’ one small detail, like dead flies on the windowsill, their brain will tell them there would be more details if they looked, which gives the world a sense of being fleshed out and real.
I hope this post has helped you see descriptions and settings in a new light. Remember, if you would like notifications when I update this blog, it’s a great idea to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.