Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Setting: The World Within

By Steve Weddle

When I think of setting, I think about the little stuff. Sure you have the region and the town where the story takes place. But I want the setting to be more than simple scenery -- the space around the characters. I need the setting to be the details that infect them.

To me, it's where you're setting your characters as much as where the story is set. You're going to set them down in this type of world. I don't care whether you call it Boston or New Boston, I want to know what's immediately around them more than I want you to name the restaurant near their home.
Charlie stayed on the top step, making his father stare up at him, at his scraped chin, little pieces of gravel wedged like flecks of house paint into the skin.
That's a line from my Country Hardball collection. The boy is part of the scenery as much as the setting is part of him. He has gravel pressed into his chin, little bits of earth. And using that simile -- like flecks of house paint -- tells you about their home. You know those beat-up houses in the country that you see (or live in) where the faint is just flaking off? Well, to me, that says so much. A little detail like that, worked into the narrative detail, tells you so much about the setting.

Let me pull another example, something small that I hope shows what I'm talking about.
They looked out across the dirt path curling behind the store, the weedy field, the train tracks that led somewhere else.
Dirt and weeds behind a store. This store, I don't mind telling you, would probably be the gas station I worked at as a kid. Every so often I'd have to go back there with a scythe and cut down the weeds. Yeah, a scythe. Don't know why the boss didn't have a weed-whacker. Guess I was it. So I'd cut down the weeds and look up at the train tracks running by carrying my hobo thoughts of harmonicas and camp fires miles away to some movie I'd seen that weekend.

I'm not interested in the train tracks. I'm not interested the setting around the characters. I'm interested in the setting within the characters.
We’d walked across the fields back to her house, climbed up the cement steps and used our elbows and chins to open the thin-metal screen door. A sprig from a dying nandina bush got caught in the door. I reached back, snapped the branch like a finger, then closed the door behind me.
See, I don't want someone to read that and say "Ah, a nandina bush. They must be in Zone 7." For what I'm writing, the part of the setting that's important is the bush -- but I don't care about the bush. I care that the bush gets in the way and that the narrator snaps it "like a finger." And then he just goes on with his business.

Because, for me, setting isn't another character. I've heard people make that argument, and that's fine for them. But for me, setting is part of each character. Another person might have snapped the branch "like he was breaking spaghetti noodles to feed the church." That's a different type of character.

For me, setting infects the characters and informs the reader. Setting isn't about the world surrounding the characters of my stories. Setting is that shadow spreading from within the characters -- their world extended.


Harvey Burgess said...

Thank you for this post, Steve. Setting is such an important element of any novel!

Travener said...

Interesting. Good food for thought. Makes you see how you can communicate a feel and a history in just a line or two. Thanks for sharing.