Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Five Ingredients To A Good Story : Part Two - Setting

The rocky cliffs on a Yorkshire heathland. The rolling plains of the Kansas prairie. The crowded sidewalks and towering skyscrapers of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. All these places paint different images in our minds and hearts. Some we associate with pleasant feelings, others we cringe at the thought of. These scenes can be edited down into one simple word - setting.

Think of what it’s like to buy a house. It can take weeks and weeks of searching to find one that’s suitable, and one we fall in love with. Now transfer this same concept to our novels. Careful thought should go into the setting in which we place our characters.

Things to keep in mind when choosing a setting.

1) Make sure you enjoy the place. This might seem like a given, but to some it’s not. Some of us decide to set our books in our hometown, because we think we know a lot about the area and inhabitants. But what if we don’t like the place we grew up in, and always imagined living somewhere else? For example, although I love the small town atmosphere of northern Michigan, I have always imagined spending a year or two in London or New York City. Why not set your book in a place you’ve always dreamed of? If you feel enamored about a location and convey that to your readers, they will be enamored about it themselves.

2) Make sure you feel confidant about the research. I have found that writing about a place that I have never been to, or am not able to visit, takes a great deal of research. So, while following rule number one, make sure you can do the research and write accurately about the place you choose. Readers will want to feel you have “dropped” them into the location while they read.

3) Lastly, when you pick a setting, do your best not to change your mind mid novel. Although I know of authors who have done this, it will give your story less of the flavor it might have had if you stayed with something throughout the whole course of your novel.

Settings In Literature

Literature is famous for it’s settings. Who can forget the rugged forests and open prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House In The Prairie” series. Or on a darker note, the revolution torn villages and cities of Boris Pasternak’s “Dr Zhivago.” Here are two examples from some of my favorite pieces of literature. The first comes from one of the great masters of the use of setting, Charles Dickens. Here is a selection from “Oliver Twist”.

      As Jack Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o'clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John's Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler's Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.
     Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odors. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public- houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

Although I have read this scene before it still continues to amaze me what Dickens’s can do with only two paragraphs. We vividly see the desolation and grime through the eyes of young Oliver, and feel as repelled as he. We can almost see before us those ragged children crawling around our feet, and we have need to cover our nose to block the “filthy odors.” Need I say more?

The next example is far different from the first. It is from Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of Old New York, “The Age of Innocence.”

     On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the construction, in remote metropolitan distances, of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the "new people" whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
     It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience" had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient "Brown coupe." To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honorable a way of arriving as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman's most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Again, only two paragraphs, but so vivid. The visions this time are more pleasant, I can fully glimpse the world of luxury and endless ritual. And Wharton immerses us in this world throughout the novel. I read this book recently, then watched the film. Both captured the setting of the Gilded Age quite brilliantly.

Writing exercise:

Do you have trouble with the setting descriptions in your stories? I know I sometimes do. Try the following exercise and see if it helps you to “see” the surroundings through the eyes of your characters.

Pick a very small scene in your current work or a small element in your own life- say your kitchen, bedroom or a small cafĂ© you like to visit. Go through and describe all you see, hear, smell, and feel. Be very elaborate in your description using all your senses. Now re-read what you wrote. Can you narrow things down to just the top elements that would convey to someone else the “feel” or “mood” of what you described. Writers tend to fall into one of two categories; describing too much or too little. I tend towards the later. So I have had to work on this in my craft. Striking a balance is our main objective as writers.

Reading good literature, and then practicing through writing, will make conveying a convicting setting a possibility.

Share with me what helps you to become a master at conveying the setting to your readers! Do you read good literature or just keep practicing your craft?


djbarratt said...

Good tips Amanda. I love reading other authors that do a good job with the setting. It makes you feel like you are actually there in the story!

Sara said...
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Sara said...

Excellent post!! I love writing about different settings, but I am NEVER very good at it! I will definitely try your tips!

Geraldine said...
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