Setting Personified

What was that noise, acrylic and modeling medium with palette knife on canvas, 24×36,

As a writer and writing coach, I stress the importance of well-written, well-integrated setting. Afterall, settings are people, too!

Good setting adds to characterization, it grounds the story and people in it in a place and time, and it provides a solid structure for the reader to depend upon. Minimalist setting is good too, but new writers need to first know HOW to write a full-fledged setting; as they say learn the rules so you know that you’re breaking them.

In the writing classes I teach, I often use an exercise for writing setting called the Photographer’s Assignment. Let’s say a photojournalist is sent on assignment by their magazine editor to shoot a local high school. They will often take an approach that begins with an overview and leads slowly to an intimate detailed shot.

For example, our photographer gets to the high school. First, she stand on a hill and takes a picture of the entire high school complex — building, football field, track, parking lot, high school building. Clicking away, she moves slowly in, taking pictures of the building, the football field. Closer and closer in she goes, getting shots of a moody corridor with student lockers, the doorway of a classroom, a teacher in front of a class, a student in a desk, their hand writing in a notebook.

I use this philosophy when teaching setting to make sure new writers cover all bases with setting. I ask them to go from overview of their setting to the smallest detail, the scratches on a locker or the scuff marks on the corridor floor. Most new writers ignore the setting or only visit it tangentially, and to break that habit, we spend a lot of time talking about how to do setting well.

As for any type of description, make sure with setting to use all of the senses, not just visual. What does the area or room smell like? What is the texture? What do you hear? What is the weather?

Setting can work to enhance characterization. Watch what your protagonist notices from their point of view. Maybe they go on and on about the weather. So, your setting would include minute weather details. Maybe they’re afraid of enclosed places and would notice the lockers, and as a writer you would need to describe the small, suffocating, enclosed nature of the lockers in visceral detail. When setting is integrated into point of view it becomes a remarkable form of characterization.

Watch for metaphors or themes in the setting that work well in your story. For example, if your protagonist walks into the high school and feels like an outsider, that’s one theme. If they walk in and feel nostalgia, that’s another. A writing teacher once told me that setting and characterization have as much to do with what the character does NOT notice as it does with what they DO notice.

Of course, on revision, setting must be deeply integrated into the story and not just appear in blocks of paragraphs. But first practice rich setting description; worry about integrating it upon revision.


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