Realtors know that smart location is everything in buying or selling property. Try to sell a house that’s near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you’ll learn this. In story, a good location is also really important–I wouldn’t say it’s everything, but it’s as vital as good characters and strong plot.
Unfortunately, it’s the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether. Mostly due to impatience, I’ve learned. Or the belief that once you’ve described the weather and how a room looks, the reader can retain than for 300+ pages.
I don’t know if the analogy really works, but I see smart location like a smart phone–it is where the reader taps in, to orient, to learn more, to feel the character’s communication with her life.
I’ve been reading a manuscript by a first-time author who is quite skilled at character. The narrators who alternate in the novel are vivid as any I’ve come across. But I see them in a kind of vacuum as the pages pass, and eventually, I realized it’s because there’s so little setting.
I need that smart location to orient. To find out how reliable the character really is–is she as wicked as she pretends?
Smart location in story also goes beyond the physical elements–something I’ve named the “container” of your book.
Quite a few years ago, one of my students was working on a memoir about growing up in post-World-War-II Mississippi. She definitely had characters nailed, just like my student above. She also had great plot points that let the reader track the dilemma of her story.
But when she asked for feedback from her writing group, it came back lukewarm. The pages lacked a sense of place, her fellow writers told her.
She didn’t want to include the Southern cliche of moss-hung oaks and sweet tea, she told me. The South was old news to her; she was writing her memoir to put it behind her. Thoughts and reflections about what she’d learned since she’d left the South were much more interesting.
When I read Margaret’s “islands,” I saw how brief was her acknowledgment of setting. She did note the ancient oak tree outside her family’s home, the stuffed furniture in the parlor, the separate summer kitchen which kept the main house cool in August. But overall, there was an imbalance of sensory road signs. Indeed, Margaret’s story could’ve taken place as easily in New York as Mississippi.
I told her that while good characters initially engage us, and plot twists provide momentum, it is setting that gives the emotional grounding that keeps us involved.
“But most of this story takes place inside my reaction to it,” she argued, “in my thoughts and feelings, looking back from my life now.” All good, but thoughts and feelings tell more than show. They are abstract. It’s counter-intuitive, but reflective writing doesn’t communicate emotion to a reader, only to the writer who has thought or felt it. I suggested Margaret study the container of her story, the environment where it happens, and distill just enough detail to provide the missing sense of place.
Rick Bass, award-winning author of Winter and other memoirs, described this sense of place as the small elements that “lay claim to you, eventually, with a cumulative power.” Bass said they can be as simple as “the direction of a breeze one day, a single sentence that a friend might speak to you, a raven flying across the meadow and circling back again.” A container comprises these small outer details, but also the inner landscape of culture, politics, religion, history-the atmosphere of the life in your book. Writing believable container is much more than just adding one or two setting details. It’s about creating a strong center that pulls a reader in and lets her fully live in your pages.
Growing up in such a senses-rich location, Margaret felt the South was overblown and overstated. But it was the container that she could and eventually did-use to beckon the reader into her book. It was only by showing the South in all its over-the-top glory that she was able to reveal to her reader just how suffocating the South can be.
How Does Setting Deliver Emotion?
Another past student, John, was a published nonfiction writer trying to learn how container functioned in fiction.
In John’s nonfiction books, outer setting details were used effectively to illustrate anecdotes. He was accustomed to crafting a minimal environment in his small stories. But as a new novelist, John was not having success with this plug-and-play approach. He felt his descriptions of breezes, sunlight, and birds were stiff, besides being injected into each scene willy-nilly.
So I asked him first to consider why he’d selected these details, why he’d placed them just there in his scenes.
John sheepishly said he was just trying to check “setting” off his writerly to-do list. There was also zero intent to use setting to enhance emotion-which is its primary benefit.
Setting must make sense with the emotional moment you’re writing about, I explained. For example, if a character was struggling with a decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored his uncertainty. Not the clichéd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he’s talking to. Or if it’s a really big decision, a tree fallen across a road. A forgotten pan on the hot stove. These details mirror the character’s unsettling confusion.
So John began a list of the emotional moments in his book. He began placing small setting details to echo each moment of his main character’s emotion. The effect surprised him-there was so much more payoff! We discussed how, if his character just thinks about his decision, it stays in his gut and never reaches the reader’s.
The setting is a roadmap for the reader. It emphasizes what we’re supposed to be receiving from the scene.
Every book takes place somewhere. Even the most abstract nonfiction book has to have a setting. Writers can’t neglect this outer container, the exterior setting, the physical location of their stories-and also how the interior environment is reflected in those outer setting details.
John learned that good placement of shown setting reveals emotion as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-summer dahlia-without any interpreting by the writer.
A Basic Lesson: Creating Outer Container
Outer container, what is traditionally called setting, is demonstrated via outwardly perceived things: the weather, the time of day or night, where a person is physically in a room or garden or other specific location, how light slants against an object or a wall or someone’s arm, what smells and sounds surround us. But how many writers omit these details, thinking, like Margaret, that they’re boring or slow or unnecessary?
Outer setting details are the first conveyers of emotion to a reader. They set the stage.
Few playwrights set their theater productions on a completely blank stage-no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. Much easier for the audience to imagine themselves inside an 1850s farmhouse kitchen if there is a rocker, an old wooden table, a woodstove, and windows with eyelet curtains. So what outer details exist in your story right now? What have you taken time to write in?
Start by viewing what your narrator notices. Describe the seen setting first. Time of day (light, dark), objects, furniture, nature.
Move through each of the remaining five senses, asking yourself what might be perceived. What smells are in this place? What sounds? Add in these details without interpretation, without qualifiers, without telling the reader what the details mean. Write, “The garden was pink and gold and filled with summer light.” Don’t add, “It was beautiful to Marci.”
We already get that. No interpreting required.
Overly Familiar Settings
Annie, a published mystery writer, was working on her latest story set in the Florida Keys. “I’m trying to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere to heighten the sense of being in Key West,” she told me. “But one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar it seemed, how much the Keys were like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in. The marshy and swampy landscape, riddled with bays and inlets in South Jersey, has long encouraged all sorts of the same activities that take place in the Keys. Even the architecture is similar,” she added, “and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike.”
Annie wanted to know how she could give her readers a sense of Key West while showing that, for her character, this setting felt so familiar. I told her that even if a character knows the story’s setting, from growing up there or visiting, it’s important to realize that her reader won’t. It’s still necessary to place the reader in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Setting places a reader firmly in the time of day, the experience of light slanting across the floor, or the way the tropical wind rattles the windows. In Annie’s mystery, she could mention the familiarity of it to her character, but she still had to establish setting.
In short, the setting lets us get inside the character’s head, via what she notices about where she is, how it impacts her, including what she tries to ignore. You can’t skip this step of crafting a believable outer container. Or else we won’t feel your story.
Choose a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Answer three of the questions below. Select one or two sentences that come from the answers and add them to your writing.
1. What does the narrator smell?
2. What does she sense on her skin (air temperature)?
3. What does she hear close to her? In the distance?
4. What three objects are nearby?
5. What time of day is it? How can she tell via the setting (without a clock)?