Thursday, March 13, 2008

Novel Writing: Setting As Character

I've been taking a few posts to share some information about novel writing. This week I will focus on setting, and specifically how to get more mileage out of the setting by considering it a character in the story.

What exactly is setting? It is the milieu: the social and physical environment that wraps around the characters and events of a story. The more present the writer is with this milieu, the more complex and textured the story. An effective setting must have depths and layers and be true to life just like a believable character. The setting must contain unexpected incongruities. The best settings are showcased by revealing flaws not perfections.

The setting will help create the tone of a story. If a story is lighthearted, pensive or tragic, specific setting details can bring cohesion to the author's intent. Tone is about considering how you, the author, view your story. Are you angry, amused, or passionate? Hopping bunnies and flitting fireflies may be just the ticket to slant in your sarcastic view of your story. You as the author may have very complex feelings about your story; the setting is a great place to connect the reader with your attitude.

Also, consider the mood of the story. Generally the mood of the story rises directly from the reactions of the main protagonist. Using the setting to reflect these reactions is a power device. Think about this classic moment. In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the Gothic lightning bolt strikes the tree just as the brooding Mr. Rochester makes a fateful decision to marry his Jane. This bolt signals the storm that will destroy his and Jane's happiness for a time. This is an over the top classic moment but gets the point across. Be mindful of the setting details and how they reflect the characters choices. This will serve as a support structure for the original voice.

It is a useful exercise to write a scene in a working story in a new way. Think about the context of the scene like a depiction of a first betrayal. Take this context and then rewrite the scene but use only the setting of your story to reveal this context. Does a spider pounce on its prey? Does the wind tear glorious fall leaves from a tree? Does the ocean wash away a fortress of sand? Will the unwelcome smell of burnt toast flood a rose garden? Exploring context through setting is a way to expand your storytelling skills. Give it a try.

I hope something here will bring richness to your endeavors. I've been traveling, so not very much writing over the past couple weeks. I've reached the 40,000 word mark with my work-in-progress. I turned in my two picture books, received copies of two other books and am working on a polish of a favored manuscript.

I leave you with a poem that perhaps says more about what I am trying to say than all my words put together.

The Fog
by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

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