Monday, November 29, 2010

The Essential Nature of Setting

By Steve Weddle

I slid my chair back from the table, the screech a scream in the empty house. Took the plate to the sink, raked the burned chunks into the disposal. Ran some water until everything washed down the stainless steel drain. Wiped the plate with a dishtowel and set the plate back on the counter for breakfast. 

Pulled my phone from my shirt pocket, scrolled back through the missed calls. Settled. Highlighted the one. Clicked. Would you like to dial this number?

I set the phone down on the island without responding, then walked to the back windows, looking out over the ravine. The clumps of bushes grown together, killing each other. Honeysuckle choking through everything. Scrub pine never getting tall enough to be worth a damn. A handful of oaks, broken limbs, reaching for the sunlight, growing apart.


A few thoughts about setting in not one damn bit of order.

Setting is something you can do as well in first-person as in third-person, I think. So many things you can't. Like that trick third-person writers use when they end a chapter with the hero in jeopardy, then focus the next chapter on someone else. Tough to do that in first-person novels. But setting, well, we're on some of the same footing there. In fact, in first-person, what the narrator chooses to focus on could tell you something. In the example above, if I'm writing that in first-person and the narrator is an astrologer, what sees out the back window is a damn sight different than what a birdwatcher would notice. They're not looking at the same sky, at all. (In that opening scene up there, if I'd made the person a horticulturalist, maybe he would have known the names of some of the other trees. I don't, so there you go.)

First-person setting is like much else in first-person books in that what's there and what's missing both tell you much about the narrator. What he or she chooses to see.

I just finished PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer (our first book in our new DSD book group here) and am thinking about his setting, a rural area near Cincinnati and the city itself. And the various areas throughout. Whitmer does a great job with setting, from the towers in the city to the blown-off mountaintops in deer-hunting country. It's not so much that you feel as if you're there. I've been there. The thing is, you feel as if the characters are there. And that's what matters. No offense intended towards the fine people of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, but tonight I don't give two shits about going to Cincinnati. I'm sure the people are real nice and hospitable and all, but those aren't the people I care about. I care about the people in the book. I care about what happens to them and why it matters. I care about how they see the world. And I care about their world. And, and this is where setting really matters, I care about what they care about in their world.

If the character in a book I'm reading wants to stop and tell me the history of a place, well, a couple of things could be in play. One, the author could be a craptacular hack just trying to drop in all the research he's done when he surfs the internet. Or, as in PIKE and in Hilary Davidson's THE DAMAGE DONE and in Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER --my recent reads-- the setting could tell you more about the characters than any mention of a maroon and gold scarf could. What they see, what they don't see, and how they process it, that's what matters.

Setting doesn't have to be the town at all. You don't have to know Spokane from Abilene to be able to write a convincing setting. And no amount of Google's Street View is going to correct for the fact that your characters are big, fat phony heads.

Setting is the world around your character. No, that's not quite right. What the hell am I trying to say? Setting is the soul of your character, spread out like a blanket across the world. Your character is having a tough time of it? Then he sees broken tree limbs. Your narrator's full of hope? Then she sees the fallen tree limbs and thinks about the new life all that fungus and crap down there is going to create.

Or it's the exact opposite. A setting in contrast to the narrator. A piece of the world that separates instead of pulls together. Here, I'll make up another one so maybe I can explain this thing better.

The hospital cafeteria had thinned out pretty good since I'd been here three nights ago. Seven dollar sandwiches. Four buck pizza slices. They would have delivered food to me, one of the nurses had told me. Wheeled up whenever I wanted. I wouldn't have had to leave Gillian's bedside at all. I could have sat there, eating slices of Christmas ham off a plastic tray while people around us prayed about how thankful they were to have had her here for six years. That six years of Gillian was a gift from God.  Stupid bullshit like that. That God missed her and wanted her back. God's shining star. God's little angel. Like these cardboard angels with praying hands and halos, cutout centerpieces for every table. The table against the wall with the man and woman holding hands, her leaning into his shoulder and crying. The table with a couple of men passing photos of some newborn back and forth. Looks like a ballplayer, one of them says. Damn right, the other grins. Still, I need to eat, the family counselor said. Like I didn't know about eating. Like I hadn't fed Gillian when she was a baby. Like I hadn't fed her the last seven-and-a-half months and watched her fade away. Like I can't feed myself, sitting here at this empty table. A cardboard angel on every God damned one.

The setting isn't the town or the river or the exact color of the door across from the parking garage. It doesn't have to be the stingy smell of French Quarter piss or floating dust and grime in a Soho construction site that ruins a freshly dry-cleaned suit.

Setting is that part of your characters, that essence that spreads out when they walk across a room, when they open their eyes to daylight. Setting is the part of the writing that doesn't do a damn thing except tell you exactly who the characters are. Setting is the halo around the cardboard angel.


David Cranmer said...

Setting is essential and an area I need to improve on.

Good post, Steve.

Paul D Brazill said...

Dead good post.

Dana King said...

Dead on, especially the parts about first person narration. I friend once pointed out to me how little internal monologue was needed to characterize a first person narrator. The reader should learn all he needs to know about him through what the narrator thinks is important enough to describe, and how he goes on to describe it. You can get a little of that with close third, but first person rules in this regard.

(Word verification = egnot, a no cholesterol egg substitute.)

Jen Forbus said...

On behalf of all of us here in Ohio, thanks for not caring about us, Steve! ;-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Too many short story writers give setting very little attention. I could go for a lot less dialogue and a lot more setting in many stories. Especially if the dialogue is interchangeable from one character to the next. Even tough guys don't all speak alike.

Robb Cadigan said...

Excellent post. I'm struggling with setting right now. Can an effective crime story be set in a fictional place? Pelecanos argues no--setting is a character. The real place informs the fiction. I suspect Lehane would say the same about Boston. But what about Turow and his fictional Kindle County? Well, everyone knows it's Cook County and Chicago, but the fictional setting allows Turow to move landmarks and rivers without upsetting the locals. But it's not really a fictional place if it's just a renamed reality, is it? Ugh.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

That was some heavy shit to digest, but it makes perfect sense. Going to read it again, mabe a few more times. Thanks for breaking it down so well.

Steve Weddle said...

David -- Thanks. I thought "Maynard Shipley" had a great feel for setting.

Paul -- Thanks, sir.

Dana -- Yeah, thanks. I'm a big fan of 1st person.

Jen -- Not you. The other people.

Patti -- Yeah. Agree with you on dialogue.

Robb -- Mr. Pelecanos knows better than I do, of course, but I'd argue that the mere act of choosing what to describe and what to avoid makes the setting kinda fictional, you know?

SPR -- Nice of you to say. Thanks