Capturing the Setting

This is an article I found on the BBC – Get Writing website, written by Sue Chester. I took out the exercises and etc, focusing mainly on the content. If you’d like to see the original article, click here. It’s a pretty long article, so reader beware:

Setting Off
For the last few weeks I’ve been on a journey through the Caribbean. It was very cheap. Gabriel Garcia Marquez took me there personally for less than a tenner in Love in the Time of Cholera.

The setting of a novel is integral to the story. It’s the stage set where the action takes place, the unifying factor where the plot unfolds and where the characters develop. Not just the geographical backdrop, setting is also reflected in time and place. Time could mean the time of day, the season, the future, past or present. Place can mean anything from the specific geographical location to a house, kitchen, car, football stadium, a Swiss ski slope or a Norfolk beach.

Description is the first port of call when it comes to creating your setting, lifting your readers into a vivid, imaginary world that rings true and feels real – exactly why I enjoyed reading Marquez. A good descriptive passage isn’t just a random list of what was in the landscape or in the room, but has enough striking and original detail to paint an image of the scene.

So what makes description work? It’s a combination of observation, detail, imagination and creating a sensory experience for the reader; all through use of the writer’s kit – nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and figurative language.

Before you describe anything you need to really observe the world around you, just as a fine artist would when painting. If you haven’t properly looked and absorbed, how can you describe to others with enough accuracy and intensity to hold their interest?

The Linguistic Toolbox
There are a few handy sign-posts to help you through what can become the description-mire. If like me, you dozed off in a few English classes, they might be a useful reminder; adjectives, adverbs and figurative language such as similes, metaphors, personification, symbolism, hyperbole, paradox, allusion, alliteration, onomatopoeia and idioms (phew) are some of the trappings you can use to help create the images and set the scene for your story or poem as it progresses. Beware of clinging too desperately to these literary devices, sprinkling your work with clichéd similes (such as “as white as snow”, “as ugly as sin”) and metaphors that come across as pompous or border on the comic, for instance a passage like, “John’s love for Angie started out like a cruise on a sea of emotion, but after twenty years of arguments, it was like a broken vessel, smashed into driftwood on the shore…” will leave your reader cringing. Once your description slips into cliché mode, it no longer provides a clear picture for your reader, but will come across as annoying, repeated verbiage.

So how do you prevent the big-wince reaction? Try to think of a fresh and imaginative way to get the image across. Well-chosen metaphors and similes can give your writing immense power but when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, stand well back and think first. Although they seem the obvious solution to enhancing the description of your setting, “gilding the lily” is the cliché that springs to mind. Instead of clarifying the setting they tend to add a veneer of wordiness. Try to describe what you want with distinct nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are easy to sling around and are often a sign of lazy writing. It’s a question of stopping and really thinking how best to describe what you’re aiming at.

Less is usually more. For example; “Making a strange, deathly, high pitched shrieking noise, the enormous figure walked slowly backwards, stumbling awkwardly retreating from the dead body…” is far too wordy. “Shrieking, the giant stumbled backwards from the corpse…” gets the point across with more authority and is a sharper image.

So pick your words with care. Choose the noun or verb that is the most effective. If you’re stuck, thumb through a thesaurus, pace around your room playing word association games or pick up a dictionary; anything to keep your choice of language fresh and original.

Poetry shares the same nuts and bolts as fiction where it comes to creating setting, but as it’s so condensed you need to be able to say more while using less words. That means being even more selective with the use of detail. As poetry is generally more abstract and less literal in form than fiction, implication is heavily relied on through the use of figurative language, connotation and sensuous imagery, so you’re freer to unleash your imagination and go berserk with your description.

Finding Your Style
Now you’ve got all this imagery under your belt and you’re stretching your creativity, what else would move your description along? By appealing to your reader’s senses you help them inhabit your literary world so they can really “feel” it. The most common senses we use are seeing or hearing but don’t limit your self. Use smell, touch, and taste too. Yes, it’s touchy-feely time. How you describe the settings in your story or poem depends on your own natural style. Some writers ornately embellish, whereas others keep things sparse. Poetry and romantic fiction are more suited to literary flights of fancy whereas travel journalism and a thriller wouldn’t suit endless poetic musings. It’s also a question of the reader’s preference. Some people like a lot of “poetic” description whereas for others, it’s a turn off.

Although you can also go to town on your description in a novel, all that creative “letting go” can make you lose the plot. Whilst you’re having a great time thinking up a metaphor that’d impress Ernest Hemingway, you’ve lost your reader who’s really desperate to know what’s going to happen to the characters you left in certain peril. So don’t let your writing-ego run riot at the expense of your plot and characters, or you could lose your audience’s interest by boring them to death.

Getting Into Character
Getting across a sense of place isn’t just achieved through clever description. You need to be able to communicate the mood of a setting and give it context. There’s no point having a setting that’s divorced from the story and the characters. For instance, choosing to have your character die in a cold, dark hospice alone compared to at home with loved ones, where there’s a cozy, roaring fire and soothing music playing, will change the atmosphere completely, enhancing the sense of place far beyond the physical by giving an added emotional layer. Your setting also affects your characters, revealing more about them. Placing a character into an environment they wouldn’t normally inhabit can achieve this. For example, a rich high society heroine ends up on a Glasgow council estate when her Jag breaks down. She’s so terrified that she mistakes a local resident’s mercy dash as an attack and ends up murdering him with her Manolo’s. A bit far fetched, but you get the idea. This event signals tension and a new twist to the story – all because you’ve altered the setting, which directly affects your characters, moving the plot forward.

Just as your environs affect you emotionally, they also affect your characters; if your protagonist is deeply depressed because he’s just discovered that he’s lost his home having gone bonkers down the local betting shop, then the cold, windy, winters day you’ve depicted will accentuate his melancholy. A contrasting setting can have even more effect – you could walk your character out into a sunny street party, making him even more cheesed off at his predicament. So by showing the setting through your character’s actions and thoughts, you bring the setting alive.

Environmental Effects
The importance of creating atmosphere in setting has been recognized by the literary world for the first time in 2004. The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize is dedicated to finding the book that best “evokes a spirit of place”, and Susan Elderkin’s second novel, The Voices was nominated.Her first, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains, is set in the Arizona wilderness whilst The Voices takes place in the Western Australia desert. Having visited both places on holidays where the vast space “hijacked her spirit” she admits to being a “desert junkie” and confesses it was the desert setting with its unique atmosphere that was the motivation for both books.

But it’s not only the landscape that creates a certain mood that you can use in your work. The geographical landscape also affects the local people and their behavior, which means you have to think about this when presenting your characters in their surroundings, and Susan recognized this on her first visits to the desert.

“I think people are formed by place, and you can’t really have character without place…I became fascinated by the sort of people who live in desert regions, and the way in which they have adapted to the harsh conditions. The Kimberley in Australia has a wet and a dry season, and in the dry season the heat builds and builds until it’s unbearably hot and humid and the murder rate goes up, the burglary rate goes up, the suicide rate goes up. It affects everybody’s behavior.”

Setting and Narrative
There are occasions when the setting is so prominent it takes on a life of its own, almost becoming one of the characters. The story of Ernest Shackleton’s adventures with the Endurance (or rather, without it) in the Antarctic and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (about a climbing expedition in the Peruvian Andes that goes desperately wrong) both provide settings that take center stage. Although neither book is fiction, they illustrate how setting can provide the plot, acting as the antagonist – where everything in the plot and everything the characters do revolves around the setting.The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is another example where setting dictates the direction of narrative events. The seascape is the key factor affecting everything that happens – driving the plot, creating the mood and acting as a unifying feature for the characters and story.

Narrative in style, the poem’s story is told from the viewpoint of the Ancient Mariner. The descriptions of the sea are portrayed through remarkable imagery, changing according to the Mariner’s emotional response to the passing events. He starts out positively, recounting the ship making progress, reflecting this with aesthetic images of the seascape, recounting the weather as “wondrous cold” and the frozen sea ice as “green as emerald.” But after the fateful shooting of the Albatross, blighting the journey with bad luck, the winds drop and the sea becomes an adversary. Then the tone changes as Coleridge paints a negative picture through his narrator, describing the sea as “rotting”, “slimy”, “charmed water burnt away, a still and awful red.”

Local Color
Language, customs, food and lifestyle all help build a real sense of place. If you’re trying to recreate India in a travel piece so that readers can really get a feel of what it’s like, yes, talk about the historical monuments and mention the sunset if you must. But don’t forget small but eccentric cultural insights like the tuk-tuk you saw whizzing past you with the large cow wedged inside. Or in the case of Brazil, the national obsession with buttocks might liven up yet another account of unspoilt holiday beaches.Language is an important way of echoing the setting; accent, vocabulary, local slang, sayings and colloquialisms all connect people to a region. One book which features setting to spectacular effect is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which he uses language to emphasize not only the place, but also the period. The novel is set in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and Hemingway uses literal translations of the language into English whilst using Spanish sentence structure.

The detail and accuracy of his description is so rich and accurate, but of course he was a war reporter for an American newspaper and had been to Spain several times during the conflict and this incredible detail also lends the book an emotional intensity.

There seem to be two opinions about writing; some say write about what you know. But there’s a risk that your material can become very mundane if you don’t get out much. Hemingway believed that to be able to write about life, you had to get out and live it.

But if you’re not prepared to go and live in a war zone, you can still travel to experience and research your setting, as Annie Proulx did – she went to Newfoundland about seven times to gather all she needed for The Shipping News and for That Old Ace in the Hole (set in the Panhandles of Texas) she rented a house in the area for six months to get her setting spot on.

Armchair Traveling
If you can’t research your setting first hand, don’t panic – it is possible to do it without leaving your desk. Sid Smith decided to set his first two novels, A House by the River and Something Like a House, in China, although he’d never been there. Hell-bent on a China setting and with finances prohibitive to jetting east, how did he pull this off? A collage of research gleaned from watching TV documentaries, days at the British Library, surfing the net, scouring newspaper and magazine articles and exhaustively reading books was all it took.He admits that with all this research he was tempted by a “trainspottery obsession” to include random cultural references: “For instance, in China it’s very often the case that people raise fish in flooded rice fields and I had this terrible itch to put this is in. If I could have thought of a way in which it advanced the story or illuminated character then, fine, but otherwise, don’t bother. Resist.”

Tariq Goddard had never been to Russia, which is where he chose to place his novel, Dynamo. But unlike Sid, he wasn’t as concerned about depicting the setting as completely. He’s convinced you can create a sense of place with carefully selected language and confident writing:

“If you write well people will believe you irrespective of your subject matter. So if I’m writing about a man walking, and know how the man thinks as well as what walking feels like, then I can be as convincing describing him going from Brixton to Hoxton as I could if he were on his way back from Red Square to Gorky Park. Emotional involvement with a landscape (real or imaginary) and familiarity with your characters are what make readers trust you, not an A to Z knowledge of their locality.”

All the research in the world won’t be any use, though, unless you can put it down on the page so that your readers will be transported wherever you want to take them. So don’t overload your descriptions with unnecessary adjectives or similes – keep it tight, make every word work for you and, above all, use your imagination.

Sue Chester’s Suggested Reading: Setting by Jack Bickham
A ‘how to’ volume which concentrates on getting your setting to work with your plot, characters and point of view, and how to get your readers’ senses sizzling.