Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Location, Location, Location

So far in this series on novel planning, I’ve discussed the importance of writing exercises, the need for both an inside and outside story, and the key concept of the wound and the want and how it can infuse your characters and your story with life and purpose.

This month, I want to focus on setting. Full disclosure: I’m not a huge setting gal, at least not yet. My writing up until this point has focused on the contemporary world. I haven’t created a new world on a foreign planet, loaded my characters onto a spaceship in the future, or traveled back in time to the 1920s (though I’d love to write a story with flappers).

In all those cases, setting would be an essential component. But just because I’m writing in the contemporary world doesn’t mean I can ignore setting, nor do I want to.

I know from firsthand experience that attention to setting enriches your work, specifically with regard to characterization. I was working through a setting exercise to describe the living room in my main character’s house. I created a beautiful room, but, turns out, it wasn’t anywhere my sixteen-year-old main character would live. Her mother was a world traveler with Middle Eastern roots. She wouldn’t have a stark white couch and glass and steel coffee table. She’d have a plump, pumpkin-colored armchair and a table with thick, reclaimed wood legs and a top decorated with mosaic tile.

The more I thought about where my character would live, the more her personality (or in this case, her mother’s) came alive.

This is one benefit of thinking in detail about your setting. Even if the rooms your inner interior designer creates never actually make it onto the page, I promise your brainstorming will serve a purpose.

But there’s another benefit to paying close attention to setting. It can reinforce the mood or tone you need to make a scene work. Why does almost every funeral scene take place in the rain? It’s the easiest and quickest way to develop a somber, dark feel. Cliché? Perhaps. Does it work? Oh yes.

Take this idea a step further and strip away the cliché nature. Is your character feeling trapped? Should the fight she’s having with her boyfriend happen in a wide, expansive meadow filled with gleaming yellow sunflowers or in a dinged-up Chevy with a broken radio and ripped seats?

And don’t be afraid to let the answer surprise you. Free yourself to mess with expectations. Sure, a kid’s room can be his escape, the place he feels safe. But what if he used to share that room with his twin brother who died? Maybe it’s the last place he wants to be and instead the lake where the family used to camp is the only place that gives him hope.

Especially in young adult and middle grade, it can be easy to rely on the two main settings of home and school. Do those places need to be there? Probably. But add more, add ones that mean something to you. In my case, my love of the beach and the ocean was passed along to my main character, Azra, which allows me to write with more emotion and inhabit a place on the writing page I long to be. But also add ones that challenge you. Does your main character have a part-time job in an auto repair shop but you know nothing about cars? Use it as an opportunity to learn and to deepen your storytelling.

One last item on setting to consider: write to all five senses. Sight is the one that will dominate, but don’t ignore the other ways to enhance your writing. Let your character smell her mother’s lasagna bubbling in the oven when she walks in the door after being bullied at school. Make him fight back tears when he hears Eric Clapton, his father’s favorite, on the radio. Run her fingers along the silk scarf her boyfriend gave her for her birthday. Taste the salt on his face after a long run.

And don't forget to use props. They are a great way to help you show, not tell. You don’t have to say it’s cold if your character is pulling on wool mittens. You don’t have to tell me she’s nervous if her mug shakes in her hand.

Keep in mind, especially in Kid Lit, pages and pages of pure description will have your reader dropping your book and picking up a video game controller. Less is more. One great way to sprinkle in setting is during narrative beats (the parts not in quotation):

“There!” Lily said. “That’s a spot, down at the end.”

The only working lamp post was at the opposite end of the potholed parking lot.

My Mini Cooper’s headlights barely made a dent in the dark. “Why not just tape a sign to our backs: Murder Victim 1 and Murder Victim 2?”

Sights, sounds, smells, lighting, temperature, time of day, time of year, what’s inside, what’s outside, props, geography, all these things are part of setting. Use them to make your story come alive.

You don’t have to be writing about an alien colony on the planet of Pluto – sorry, planetoid of Pluto -- for setting to be a character all of its own.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading and writing books or stories with a very strong setting. Manhattan always feels like another character in the books I've set there, particularly my contemporary historical Bildungsroman. And I fell so much in love with Isfahan and the Fereydan region of Iran while writing my WIP that I'm planning to go there for some firsthand research for the later second draft. I wish I could go to all the foreign places I've set my historicals in.