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Creating Settings in Literary Fiction

William H. Coles


As a fiction writer, an author orients the reader as to where and when the action takes place by creating a setting.  Well-constructed purposeful settings also evoke image stimulation, establish mood, and can supplement characters’ motivations and feelings in the moment.  Without doubt, creating great stories depends on author skill in establishing settings that are integral to story development and understanding.

In essence, with the start of every new scene  (if not carried over from previous scenes), the author establishes where, when, who, what.  Even in techniques such as stream of consciousness, or back-story reflection, readers need orientation.

Since action scenes predominant most great successful stories, something is always happening.   Life is a progression of thoughts, heartbeats, and physical movement.  And stories progress through time and often locations.  Characters pop in and out.  And what is happening is a jumble of changing descriptive characteristics.  In contrast, essays are static.  And memoir is life lived with no opportunities for an author to imaginatively create characters that live in stories.   Imaginative creation promotes story purpose, and theme and meaning.  In fiction, an author presents human existence through character change and understanding in story action, and, of course, character thoughts and feelings.  Effective use of setting with accurate stimulating images, a sense of continuous action and thought, and carefully chosen right details, augments storytelling and writing effectiveness.

Of course, static scenes are also necessary at times.  For most stories, when the emphasis is on dialogue, internalization, reflection, stream of consciousness, or image description, a reader still needs to comprehend the physical action in the scene as well as a sense of progression of time and emotional change.  And image reader stimulation of setting by the author choosing the right story details engages the reader and promotes enjoyment, provides a architecture to focus writing on story purpose and meaning that will entertain a reader and be memorable.

Attribution of dialogue to characters can provide well-paced and effective setting particulars:

TWO EXAMPLES

1.

“I won’t do it,” she said signaling the waiter for a check.
(This attribution provides details in addition to who’s speaking, both direct and  subconscious information: in a restaurant, finished eating, speaker able to see (waiter), able to signal (not impaired), able to speak.)

2.

“Let us all rise to the occasion,” he said gripping the edges of the podium and sweeping his gaze deliberately over the audience.
(Here images are stimulated in attribution–podium, gripping edges, sweep of gaze, the intensity of gaze–but also there is a sense of urgency added to the words actually spoken.  But be cautious.  Depending on the context before and after, this attribution might be too many redundant or unnecessary words.  Attributions can be overdone so always weigh effectiveness, pace, and consistency with the prose style established.)

Settings differ with a point of view change of character or narrator.  So to be effective, in any scene in any story, an author needs to make a reader aware of the point of view, and also consider distance–for example, near or far (examples below)–and be aware what in the setting has changed due to passage of time.  Ask: is there a detail that can indicate time passage with out calling attention to it specifically.  (ExMPLE: “The ice cream melted” is often more acceptable in fiction to indicate time passage than “two minutes passed”.)  The idea is to signal passage of time and momentum with the stroke of a small detail.

To grasp the skill of creating effective setting, an author can imagine scene as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Then, for the reader, the writer stimulates an image of scene with selected pieces from the puzzle.  You will not be trying to recreate every detail of what you imagine, you’ll choose the right pieces to the imagined scene.  Often, only a few pieces of the “puzzle” are needed.  In this way the reader’s imagination is stimulated in a way that supports the story and the characters.  And for the reader it is pleasing to add their own unique pieces to the scene puzzle.  The reward is worth the effort.  Readers will be more engaged in the story and the reader-imagined scene will not suffer from a writer-constrained  attempt to paint a concrete scene by excessive detail.

Almost always, brevity results from the quality of puzzle pieces chosen.  Fewer details are needed if individual pieces of the puzzle are maximally effective.  The puzzle piece must be concrete (paper clip), not abstract (fastener).  The word choice must be image-generating (cracked porcelain tea cup, or, the blue and yellow scattered pieces of the shattered Easter egg).  Modifiers are usually more effective in setting when not  judgmental (not huge, better to say six feet tall– but only if it fits).  Avoid clichés.  Use nouns and adjectives that evoke images in a few words–fifty story skyscraper, not tall building.  Once you instinctively incorporate the right pieces of the puzzle in mind, you can then  deliver them seamlessly.

Brevity is in building scene is best.  Long descriptive passages are for past generations.  Find clever ways to use your puzzle pieces in dialogue attribution, internal reflections, narrative, back story.  Be sure to use fresh and exciting image fragments especially in narrative.

Unbreakable rule 1 (occasional exceptions)

Keep your settings alive with momentum: use abstract to concrete images and change passive (and past perfect) to active constructions whenever possible.  EXAMPLES:

Abstract

Passive/past constructions

The weather was unpleasant.  It was raining.  The grey sky reflected from the wet street surface.  The side street was rarely used by automobiles and ice would form soon on the sidewalk and the metal lampposts with gas burners that had to be lit each evening by a bent old man who had never failed in his duty for decades.

REWRITTEN

The old lamplighter painfully climbed his step stool to hold his quivering flame to the cast-iron gas streetlamp.  The light rain would turn to ice.  Pedestrians might fall.  Cars skid.  But he never failed his daily duty to protect in forty-eight years of evening service to the City of Charleston.

Unbreakable rule 2

Setting is essential for story but excessive description of setting is not (regardless of individual writing style).  And when description is excessive, it is almost always static. For clarification of static, compare these EXAMPLES.

Example A is static.
A. The small black bird with the brilliant red wings and inquisitive yellow eyes perched on the white picket fence just out of reach of the tabby colored cat with a scar on his leg and his one eye half-closed and scarred from some long ago fight.

Example B is active.
B. The red winged blackbird glided in for a landing, and the battle-tested tabby cat leaped up, claws out, and caught only the edge of one of the bird’s wings to scratch a brilliant red feather loose that floated down to the garden path as the bird safely landed on the fence a few feet away.

Use of too many bland adjectives, adverbs, or extended, vague metaphorical comparisons can deaden the desired effect of a story (and be a sign of unimaginative writing), and should be avoided in favor of action verbs and nouns that provoke images.

From (http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/how-literary-stories-go-wrong/

Remember there are a number of modes used in story telling and one (or more) predominate for a writer and change with each specific story; these are: language, character, narration (POV), plot, image, theme.  The predominant mode for a story may require adjustment of setting detail for best effect; an author will need to prioritize specific detail for the prominent mode style, and then carefully deliver details for setting so detail transfers to the reader without calling attention to technique.  To maintain success in creating settings in your stories,  ALWAYS revise inappropriate metaphors and poor use of language.

This is an example of setting with detail embedded in scene action.  Images are evoked.  Subjective abstractions are avoided (e.g. of subjective writing with abstractions: The place was a mess and she was cleaning up with little enthusiasm and carelessly waved things around frustrated she had to do the work.  A LESS ABSTRACT EXAMPLE.  A clutter of clothes on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink had to be cleaned up with her boy friend Baylor coming to visit.  She hated cleaning; she kicked scattered trash into a pile with little enthusiasm, frustrated by a forced sense to impress when she really thought Baylor was not worthy of her effort.

 

EXAMPLES OF SENSORY AND CONCRETE DETAIL IN DIFFERENT POVs

Note how details are used in the three different scenes below.  Also in scene note the use of sensory detail (hot, nude, stove, sink, blotch, etc.).

1. Dialogue predominating with enhanced setting.

“You’re pissing me off,” I said looking at my watch.  We couldn’t make the movie if we’d left fifteen minutes ago.

“I’m trying,” she whined

I softened a little.  She did try all the time.  She was just slow and stupid.

“I wish you loved me,” she said picking up a saucepan with coffee she’d reheated for me.  She moved it toward the dishwasher.  I reached to help but she jerked it away, not in the mood to be pampered.  Hot liquid spilled on her.  She screamed with pain.

“Goddamn it,” she said.  She was nude and a red blotch blossomed on her thigh.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I said not moving, refusing to help.

“I wish you were dead.”

2. Narrative first person description with setting details.

I was in the kitchen of my girlfriend Ellie’s house watching her load the dishwasher between the four-burner stove and the porcelain sink.  We were already late for the movie.  She’d picked up a saucepan she’d used to heat instant coffee and spilled hot water on her leg as she buried the pan into a washer rack.

“Damn it,” she screamed.  She wasn’t wearing any clothes and a red splotch blossomed on her leg.

3. Narrator writing in scene from narrator POV.

Ellie heated left over coffee to boiling in a saucepan.  Jake stood behind her fidgeting.

“I don’t want coffee now,” Jake said.  “We’ll never make the movie.”

“I can’t never please you.”  She grabbed the handle to empty the pan in the sink.

“Leave it, “ Luke said.  He reached to take it from her but she turned away unwilling to be pushed around.  His hand hit her arm and hot liquid spilled on her naked belly, ran down her exposed thigh; the skin turned red, ready to blister.

“I hate you,” she screamed.

“I’ll go by myself,” he said ignoring her moan as she slumped to the linoleum floor.

FAMOUS EXAMPLES

Here are two famous story openings that set the stage for the reader effectively.  First, “Barn Burning “ by William Faulkner.   Note Faulkner’s provision of setting is in scene with sensory detail and more than one point of view (narrator and boy).

1. Faulkner example

The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his   intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:   

Second, Moby Dick, by Melville. In Melville’s novel opening, note narrator description at a distance with an imperative 2nd person tone, the use of poetic language (image provoking words and tight effective metaphors at their best), and detail incorporated in expression of emotions and mood (with lots of energy in the language).  The style may seem archaic, but don’t miss the value of the writing techniques.

2. Melville example.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

You can practice writing settings in an interactive workshop here.


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