Sunday, February 28, 2010

Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories

Author Annie Kelleher sent me a great question about setting in her upcoming mystery (she’s a well-published writer) set in the Florida Keys.

“I’ve tried to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere,” she wrote me, “to heighten the sense of being in Key West, but one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar they seemed, how much like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in: the landscape, marshy and swampy and riddled with bays and inlets in South Jersey, has long encouraged all sorts of the same activities that take place in the Keys.

“Even the architecture is similar,” she said, “and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike. How do I give the reader a sense of Key West while showing that, for my character, it feels so familiar?"

Setting Brings Out the Emotion

Setting is what brings emotion to the reader. Dramatic action creates momentum, makes your book a page turner. Good characters well depicted and vivid on the page, linger in our memories long after the book is finished. But setting, the way you frame your story in physical time and space, generates the emotion. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But it's true. Just check it out in one of your favorite books--notice where the setting it, and what emotion is conveyed there.

Even if you know a setting well, your reader won't. Even if the character knows the setting, from growing up there or visiting, your reader won't. So place us in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Place us in the intense greens of summer or the black-and-white landscape of winter. Place us in the time of day, letting us experience the light slanting across the floor or the way the night wind rattles the windows.

You can even mention the familiarity of it to the character, let us into that aspect. But we haven’t been there. Just like we’re not inside the writer’s head, we’re not yet inside the character’s either. So place us there, via how the character notices where she is, how it impacts her, what she sees and what she ignores.

You can’t skip this step. Or else we won’t feel your story.

Why Setting Delivers Emotion

I worked for several years with a promising new novelist who was coming from a nonfiction background and trying to learn setting. In nonfiction, setting is used effectively in the anecdotes that illustrate ideas, theories, or methods—you’ve probably noticed the small stories that accompany a diet book or a book on repairing communication in your relationship.

But setting is not primary in nonfiction. In fiction it is.

This new novelist was stumped with setting. At first he thought it was just plug and play: rather stiff (his words) descriptions of breezes, sunlight, and birds injected into a scene willy-nilly. I asked him why these setting details were placed just then in his scene, and he couldn’t tell me. He was just trying to check “setting” off his writerly to do list.

I explained that setting details must make sense with the moment when they are used. When his character, Jules, was struggling with a big decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored uncertainty. Not the clich├ęd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he’s talking to. Or shoes scattered in the front hall. A smoking pan on the stove.

The idea was to use the setting to echo the character’s emotion.

If Jules just thinks about his decision, it stays in his mind—and doesn’t reach the reader’s gut. If the setting, an objective part of the story, reflects Jules's indecision, the setting emphasizes what we’re supposed to be receiving from the scene.

A small example. It really helped the writer.

When Is Setting Too Much

You choose your placement of setting details. Nobody rushing to a hospital will notice many setting details. Maybe two or three short bursts pass by, but not long paragraphs of it.

Keep setting to where there’s a turning point, emotionally. Keep outer drama where you need momentum.

Setting slows, drama speeds the pace.

This Week’s Writing Exercise

Use the following checklist to help yourself enhance setting in a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Choose three items and slip them in—not long sections but short (five to ten words) phrases.

1. What does the narrator smell at this moment?

2. What does the narrator feel on their skin at this moment? (air temperature, etc.)

3. What does the narrator hear close up? In the distance?

4. What three objects are in the room?

5. What’s the time of day—morning, afternoon, late evening, night? How can the narrator tell via the setting (without a clock)?

PS Be sure to visit Annie Kelleher's blog at