Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Essence of Setting

Would you pick this rocky carved area in the Middle East as the setting for the climatic ending of an adventure story?  Spielburg and Lucas did for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Is the choice of a setting really that important?

I took a photography class in high school to avoid chemistry.  I loved taking pictures, developing them in a dark room (whoops, gave away some age info there), and watching the images come to life on a submerged sheet of photo paper. 

One day my teacher showed us a movie (not dvd or vhs...it was a 16 mm).  He told us to watch for the one component that made the movie come alive. We made our wild guesses not knowing what he really wanted.  He showed a second version of the same movie. It had something missing.  We couldn't put our fingers on what was missing, but the second version was terrible. We later learned the music had been cut from the second version.

The music of a movie holds a commanding role.  Movie music told me that Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a comedy long before anything else did.  Movie music tells the viewer when to cry, cheer, scream, laugh, or when to hold their breath. 

Music for a movie plays the same role as setting does for a book.  Both are seemingly invisible (when done right), but communicate volumes. 

Take, for example, the following scenerio:

Jane runs out of the house to meet her fiancee, Ken,
and heads off to his parents to celebrate Christmas.

Perhaps you have the scene in your mind already.  What do you see? 



Did Jane dash out the rickety farm door, hop into a mud splattered Jeep, and Baja through the bayous to his parents?

Did Jane lock her brownstone door, slip into the backseat of a taxi, and drive out to the suburbs of Boston?



Did Jane step off her junk, stroll down the dock to the rickshaw and allow Ken to help her climb up?



Did Jane stoop to crawl out her igloo, wade through snow drifts, then mount Ken's snomobile?

The variations are endless.  Think of how the dialogue would vary in each setting. Think of how the historical events might influence Jane and Ken's lives. While the characters could come away with the same basic theme and the plot could be basically the same, the one component which would change the entire store would be the setting. 

Here are some tips to bring out the essence of your setting:

1.  Plant your setting in fertile soil:  Chose the setting that will offer your characters varied conflicts and unusual resolutions. Who would have thought that the exciting final shoot out scene would take place in a "Costco" (Mr. and Mrs. Smith)?

2.  Minute details: Know the finest details, down to the type of soil, buildings, traffic flow, etc. for your setting.  If you plant carrots in rocky, clay soil, they won't grow well.  Cowboys like the west. Cars are not allowed on Mackinac Island.  These details will keep your characters from driving on the wrong side of the road and holding the Traverse City Strawberry Bazarre in August.

3.  Keep real places, real.  I want to set my story in Rapid City, Michigan where I use to live.  Perhaps buildings, roads, or vegetation have changed. I could put my setting as I remember, but I need to match events with the time frame. I could also use the Internet to see what the area looks like at this time.

4.  Perfect match:   The setting transports the reader to the one perfect location enabling your characters to experience their story. What would happen if you moved your characters to a different location? Would it add spice, thrill, or complexities?

5.  Melt into the pages: Setting clues should be sprinkled throughout the text instead of clumping paragraphs of descriptions.  In so doing you will familiarize your readers with their whereabouts in real time. For example:  I cannot have a cake instantly appear on my kitchen counter unless I buy it at a store.  To craft this dessert, ingredients must be added in a certain order, one at a time, and occasionally stirred, beaten, or folded. Once in the oven, the ingredients bond, forming a cake.  Melt the ingredients of your setting into the lives of your characters on each page.

Now that you think about your setting, is there anything you can do to enhance this crucial component of your WIP?

2 comments:

Casey said...

5 tweets? Wow. :)

This was really great Mary. I decided to put my last story in my hometown because I did understand the setting. I don't mind researching (though it isn't my favorite), but with writing an early novel and understanding the setting was really important. I liked what you said about putting in those details that makes the scene come visually alive for the reader. I enjoyed it and thank you for reminding me of another thing I need to keep an eye out for in my WIP. :)

Sherrinda said...

I'm so sorry I missed this yesterday. It was fabulous! The way you tied in the pictures with the scene set up....excellent! You really brought it all to life!