Friday, May 3, 2019

Setting as Character--How to Create Emotion from the Setting in Your Book

Rita is working on a MG (middle grade) novel. She wrote me this week with a good question about how much to use setting in her book.  What's not enough, what's too much? And most important of all, does a story's setting need to be as developed as its characters?
Her story is set on Mars, a hostile environment ("Think adventure movie," she says, "with avalanches and earthquakes." ).  The setting produces challenging events which cause her characters to react.    
She wondered if placing these events (the big earthquake, for instance) at the height of story's dramatic moments might also represent the character's strength or inner conflict.  "The stuff of myth?" she asked.
In a way, she concludes, is the setting like an antagonist, acting against the character?

Not all books have this kind of setting, as dangerous and violent as a human antagonist, but Rita's got it right for her book.  Although her setting doesn't have what she calls "an opinion or stake in what happens to any of the characters," it does feel to the reader that it's as important as any other antagonist.  In her MG novel, there aren't many human antagonists, so Mars becomes the vehicle for her characters' primary challenges.

I'm one of those writing teachers who is always pushing more awareness of setting.  I find that lack of setting creates a kind of vacuum in a book--characters move around in a void, their dialogue not more than talking heads.  Setting is an incredible tool for mirroring character growth, emotion, and inner conflict, as Rita points out.  It's much more than the cliched "dark and stormy night" when bad things happen.  

A favorite reminder from Chekov is this:  "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."  There's the difference between pasted-in setting, the writer who knows he should add some but just plops it in any old way, and the writer who uses setting to bring more emotion and vividness to the page.  Moonlight reflected off that broken glass conveys worlds of meaning; the moon shining somewhere up in the sky doesn't.

For your weekly writing exercise, check out this post by Donald Maass from Writer's Digest blog on setting as character.  Or, for more visceral examples, this post from Industrial Scripts on setting used as character in films you might recognize.  (Scroll down to watch the clips.)  

No comments:

Post a Comment