Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Settings – Beyond Talking Heads, Bare Stage

I host a critique group in my home and have for over 25 years. You’d be surprised to see how many people bring a very good story, filled with emotion and conflict, but completely bare of setting. That’s what I call “talking heads, bare stage.”
What is setting? It’s the description of the place surrounding characters. Many elements make up setting.

Time is part of the setting. In a contemporary novel, the time is present day, and in a historical novel, it denotes the time period. In the book, it could be winter, summer, autumn, or spring, or the book could span all the seasons. Each of these elements adds to the fabric of the story.

 Place should be revealed early in each scene. Does the scene take place indoors or out? If inside, what kind of building, with what kind of furnishings? If outside, is it rural or urban? There are a lot of varying settings that paint your book.

 Another important element is the weather. And weather can add to the tone of the book. We all know that stormy weather increases the darkness of a brooding mystery or gothic novel. Sunshine can add to the feeling of well-being.

Some authors use the setting almost as another character in the book. One that comes to mind immediately is my friend Colleen Coble. Study her work to see how she uses these elements.

Why do we need setting? It anchors the reader in a time and place. It enhances the story whether a dark mystery, a tender love story, a family tragedy, or a myriad of other scenarios.

 How should you use setting? When I first started writing, I dumped large sections of description of setting into one place. Tracie Peterson, my editor at the time, told me that she didn’t want a laundry list description of the setting. Her words really revealed to me what I was doing. Thank you, Tracie.

Don’t overload the reader with unnecessary information. It’s best to include setting in snippets woven throughout the story. And reveal the snippets from the viewpoint of the POV character. How that person responds to the particular part of the setting will add to the overall feel of the story.

Setting should always be tied to the point of view character’s perceptions. And that character will be affected by what is going on emotionally in his or her life. Depicting these emotions in a graphic way draws the readers deeper into the story and keeps them turning pages.

Another place to include elements of setting is in conversation beats. I hardly ever use a conversation tag (he said, she said, etc.). Instead I utilize the beats to describe setting and other characters in the scene as well as depict the emotions of the Point of View character. 
If you’re an author, you should read multi-published authors and see how they include setting in their books. I will add this caveat. Many authors who write suspense don’t use as much setting, because it can slow down the pace of certain scenes – those edge-of-your-seat scenes. But they use setting snippets in other places.

When you're reading a book, what kinds of settings do you prefer?

Has a particular setting ever made you stop reading a book?

--Lena Nelson Dooley, winner of the Will Rogers Medallion Award for excellence in western fiction


Jillian Kent said...

Hi Lena,
I love historical settings, especially England, Scotland, Wales, France. I also love cemetaries, big dark houses, and tunnels. :)
I can't think of a setting that made me quit reading a book, that would be due to poor writing and the inability to hold my attention.
Thanks for this interesting post.

Bruce Hennigan said...

Coming from a background in drama, I always picture each scene as if I'm sitting in the front row of the theater directing the play. That works against me sometimes because I find myself walking the characters around the set as if I'm giving them stage direction! But, I've learned in the editing process to take out much of that "stage direction" and leave in references to the physical setting.
Good post and a good reminder of how important it is to "set the stage"!