Storyville: Dynamic Settings
This column is going to be all about setting. How much is too much, how much is too little? How can I advance the plot, reveal character and ground my story in reality? How do I work all of the senses into my story without feeling like I’m just cramming those details in? How do I make it feel real? I’ll talk about all of these things and what setting means to me, as well as how I work it into my own writing. So let’s get started.
WHO CARES ABOUT SETTING?
It’s one of my biggest pet peeves, something that absolutely drives me bonkers when it comes to short stories and novels. I can’t stand a story that is entirely in the protagonist’s head, devoid of the world that surrounds our hero or victim. I want those details as soon as possible. Here are two examples.
Bad setting: “The man sat in a chair in his apartment, a plate of food on the table in front of him, wondering why she left him, the pain overwhelming.”
Sucks. Sucks big time. Not only is this a terrible hook, but we don’t know anything at all about him, the apartment, whether it is day or night, what year it is, even what planet we’re on. Horrible.
Better setting: “Jacob sat on a spindly wooden chair, his bruised hands clenched in rage, hunched over the scarred oak table, the darkness seeping in the windows, a cold breeze rattling the window frames. He ignored the bottle of Jim Beam just out of reach, knowing in time it would be empty, her name echoing in his empty skull—Rebecca.”
Okay, I jammed a lot in there to make a point, but we get a lot more with the second example. He’s Jacob, not Jake, so that says something. His hands are damaged from something—his own temper, or from a fight, with Rebecca or someone else? We get a hint of the weather (cold) and the fact that it is night (darkness). We get the detail of Jim Beam—it’s not an expensive liquor, but it’s not the cheapest, either. And even her name, Rebecca, means something—it’s not Amber or Cheyenne or Jasmine. There are only a few lines here, but we have a lot more going on than the first setting. Let’s explore this a bit more.
THE BASIC ROLE OF YOUR SETTING
As we saw in the first example, if you don’t have some sort of place, time, mood and atmosphere, your story will float in the mind of your protagonist—it won’t exist in the real world. You need to ground your reality. Your setting should do a number of things, but here are the basics. Where am I? Am I in an apartment, a swimming pool, an alley, a car, a spaceship, underground? You need to let us know where we are so we can picture your scene. When is this happening? Is it now, 2012, or is it in the recent past, the 1960s or a time period we can recognize? If it’s the year 3,000 you need to set that up fast. Who is there? Show us your protagonist of course, and if he or she is in a situation, some sort of conflict, then show us the other people and establish what is happening. Those are your basic needs. The what and why are more complicated, and have more of a relationship to your plot than your setting. But know that we can’t figure out the basics (where, when, who) if you don’t create a layered, solid world in which the story can unfold. So how do we do that?
BROAD STROKES AND SPECIFIC DETAILS
There are two ways to create your setting, in my opinion, and I think you should do both things—use broad strokes and give us specific details. Both will serve different roles, but both are important. You don’t want to overload your audience with too much information, and yet, you don’t want to be too vague, either. Pick your moments, and in relationship to your characters and plot, give us more information on the things that matter.
A broad stroke can be something as vague as saying that your character is sitting in an apartment. We don’t necessarily need to know the history of the building, the architecture, the neighborhood, how much rent he pays, all of that up front. If you have time and room, then develop those details, especially in a novel. But in a short story, what you tell us about where he lives only needs to be revealed if it affects the story. We don’t need the paint color on the walls, but if you can work in “dingy white” instead of “white” that goes to character. You don’t need boring details like “a three-bedroom, two bath with hardwood floors throughout.” That sounds like something a real estate agent might put in an ad. But telling us that the wood floors are sticky with urine or warm beer, littered with cigarette ash, that goes to his mindset, if he’s falling apart. See the difference? If he goes to the refrigerator we don’t need to know that it’s a GE Electrolux 4000 with an icemaker. But there is a difference between it being an old, turquoise model with character and a shiny, new one with brushed metal finish. One says utilitarian (if a bit eccentric) and another says money. Everything in these broad strokes should go towards revealing character or advancing the plot. We’ll get to plot a bit more later in the piece.
The specific details are important too. You’ve given us an older apartment with a feeling of dread, there are socks in a pile, the hardwood floors are sticky, the turquoise fridge rattles and hunches like an animal on the chipped kitchen tile. You have given us the edges, some of the main items, the larger pieces of furniture, whatever is dominating the space, so now how about some specifics? How about that bottle of Jim Beam? Think about the kind of person that drinks, or doesn’t drink. Think about the kind of person that purchases a fifth instead of a pint. Maker’s Mark or Jack Daniel’s, these details speak to your character, his or her past, and their current situation. Your setting is more than just the walls and space—it’s everything that gives it an atmosphere. Jeans or slacks, rock and roll or classical music, cigarette or cigar, cat or dog, loft or cabin. The more details you can give us, the better. But use them sparingly. We don’t need to know that the orange he is currently peeling with a pocketknife is a 6” Valencia Blood Orange. Unless he is a farmer, or screwing a farmer’s daughter, or poisoning somebody with a Mimosa, it doesn’t matter. What he drives, the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, what resides in his fridge, these details can matter, they can clue us in to your characters and the plot of your story.
TIME AND THE ELEMENTS
It may seem obvious, but if you have a story about somebody who is strung out on meth, hiding in the shadows, then show us the nighttime, show us how he creeps around in the dark and avoids the world. We better know it is night, that it’s dark outside, and what that feels like. That’s a much different setting than a chipper mother making breakfast for her kids before she sends them off to school. Be aware of the time of day, the lighting (or lack of light) and how that affects your story and character. I set a lot of my stories at night; I like the darkness, and how the world feels when you’re alone and up to no good. Likewise, don’t forget the weather. Now, I wouldn’t open a story with snow unless it’s pivotal to your story, but you have to include it in your work. My second novel, Disintegration, is set in Chicago (Wicker Park) in the winter. I’m very aware of the cold, what my protagonist wears, how the bars are warm inside, what happens in the snow, how he can hide from cop cars, all of that. Hot or cold, wet or dry, day or night, these aspects of nature effect what you are doing, how you get from one place to another. It’s logistics, but it’s also mood and atmosphere as well.
Obviously, try to use all five senses. Sight is never a problem—it’s most of what we write. But work the rest of them in as well. I think that the sensory details you add to your story go a long way towards enhancing your mood, tone, and atmosphere. A room can be cold, rancid and dark and that will lead to tension. A room can be warm, with a hint of perfume (what kind?) and lit by candles, giving you a feeling of romance, intimacy, and heat. Whenever you are establishing a place for the first time (and every time you revisit it) stop for a moment and consider your characters. Is your bachelor going to light sandlewood candles and have soft jazz playing in the background? Is your temptress going to smell like vanilla, patchouli, or red currant? Just remember where you are. An alley should smell like spoiled milk, urine, and warm beer. A library should not. Just pause for a moment and access your own memories, what does that barn smell like—hay, dirt, manure? Now and then you can consider what your characters touch, a sharp blade, her soft skin, the leather on a jacket, but don’t overdo it. Unless your hero is tripping on acid, you may not want to go into great detail about the texture of the wallpaper. Taste always comes to mind when you have food or drink in a story, or when sex comes into play. The same with touch, how it feels to hold somebody, to grab onto a muscled ass or run a thumb over a swollen lip. Think about what your people are eating, drinking, and how it tastes to bite into her neck, to take her into your mouth. Use all of the senses, but only when it makes sense, when you feel that extra details will enhance, and not distract.
Much like my column on writing sex, I use my personal history to create my settings. I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but I’ve set many of my short stories in the same apartment. I used to live on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, and I use those details all the time. Why? I lived by myself for a few years and I spent a lot of time alone and severely altered. I can picture every inch of that place. So I use it. I set my whole second novel Disintegration in that apartment, and in my old neighborhood because I could picture it when I closed my eyes. Every el stop, storefront, every homeless guy, row house, and nightclub, they all still exist in my head. And then you embellish and accentuate the details to serve the purpose of your story. I’ve set stories in my current house, in places I lived in Arkansas and across Chicago, the home I grew up in, you name it. Use those details. And then change the information to fit your story. A dominatrix and a librarian, a hired assassin and a mother of three, will all have very different homes, and will hang out in very different places. I don’t have a problem picking up a bottle of my cologne, or my wife’s lipstick, to get a detail, an ingredient or a product name. Use what you have, and make up the rest.
SETTING AND PLOT
I always have a hard time with plot. In other words, I don’t. But here’s an example of how you can use your setting to drive the plot. In my novel, Disintegration, I put a sawhorse in the kitchen of my protagonist. Why would I do that? It sits there for a long time, it has no place, no role, why is it there? Later, we see that there are nails sticking out of it, and when our hero is losing his mind, he takes a hammer and pounds the nails into the sawhorse. It’s a way for him to release his anger, and to do so without killing somebody. Towards the end of the story something horrible happens on that sawhorse, but I won’t give it away here. You’ll have to buy the book. But it’s the old saying, if you show a gun in act one, it better go off by act three. So keep that in mind. There’s always an opportunity to plant clues in your settings, to guide the reader in a certain direction. Things are not always what they seem, but the breadcrumbs you leave can certainly create a path towards a fulfilling ending. Handcuffs in a desk drawer, a new bottle of perfume on the nightstand, a shoebox full of pornography under the bed, little ways of showing what is coming, or who your character really is—these are all details you can work into your setting.
Utilizing all of the tips I’ve given you here, understand that your setting is only one aspect of your storytelling, one tool of many. Be aware of the world that surrounds your characters, the choices they’ve made—they should make sense, match up with who they are, and reveal more details about them. Use all five senses, but don’t let it distract the reader. Only include them where it makes sense. Use your personal history, and then tweak it to fit the story. I think you’ll find that if you use broad strokes and a handful of specific details, that your stories will become more layered, intense, and immersive. Good luck!
One of my favorite authors is Cormac McCarthy. He puts a lot of effort into his settings, so here’s an excerpt from Blood Meridian and some others from Outer Dark. You either love Cormac or you hate him; I’ll leave that up to you.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD: drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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