Creating Unforgettable Settings, Part 3

Maximizing the Setting

Okay. You've picked the perfect setting for your story. You can describe it so clearly and compellingly that your readers will want to move there. Is that all there is to it? You might as well ask if I'd like plain vanilla ice cream or Ben & Jerry's Everything But The… It's a no-brainer, people. Maximize your setting to upgrade your story from vanilla to Mmmmmmm.

Set the Mood
Mood can be defined as the feeling a story evokes. Stories can be creepy (Pet Sematary), uplifting (Anne of Green Gables), tranquil (The Wind in the Willows), or any other emotion you want to put across. And the mood doesn't have to encompass an entire story; different scenes or sections within a story might make you feel different ways. Creating mood is tricky, requiring careful writing across the different elements of your story. The character's attitude and actions can reflect the mood you want to convey. Word choice will have a strong impact on how the audience feels while reading. Conflicts can propel your character toward a choice, or right into a particular mood. And then, of course, you have the setting. Want to convey a feeling of uncertainty? Make the weather unsettled—balmy one day, sleeting the next. Include things in your setting that can add to that uncertain feel: a lopsided power pole that wavers in the wind but never quite falls; a car that may or may not start; an early freeze and a citrus crop. Before you write, think about what mood you want your story or individual scenes to convey, and decide what you'll use in your setting to reinforce that feeling.

Pick a Symbol
A symbol is something that stands for something else. Symbols add depth to the story because they're things that just about everyone can relate to. They create connections between your reader and the characters because the reader gets that the howling wolf is scary to the character, or that the chuckling river gives him a feeling of tranquility. However, your symbol will only work if it's appropriate to your story. The setting is a great jumping-off point for choosing your symbol. Let's say your story contains a recurring theme of escape. What from your setting can be used to signify that? Medieval village: empty stocks. The farm: a bird flying away. Contemporary high school: the dismissal bell. Use symbols right out of your setting to add depth to your story.

Use Metaphors and Similes
Closely related to symbols, these comparisons are used on a smaller scale to compare one thing to another. You probably know the specifics: a simile uses the words like or as to compare one thing to another (her shrill voice was like a tiny hammer in my brain), while metaphors make the comparison without like or as (her voice was a tiny hammer, beating against my brain). Like symbols, these comparisons are vital to drawing the reader in. But where symbols often recur throughout a story, metaphors and similes lose their power if overused. Their vitality is also sapped if the comparison is weak. So choose wisely (said the old guy in the third Indiana Jones movie). Choose comparisons that make sense for your character, your genre, your audience, and also for your setting. Let's say you're describing a stray cat and you want to compare it to something in the scene. Historical fiction in the Old West? It was a mangy thing, more tumbleweed than cat. Contemporary? The scrawny cat strutted like a third-string quarterback who'd finally been put in the game. At the beach? It looked like the ocean had rolled him around for awhile before spitting him out on the sand. Choose comparisons that fit your setting and your descriptions will be enhanced.


Don't Forget the Weather
Weather can be a crucial piece of the picture you want to portray. The challenge here is to avoid those dreaded clichés. Here are a few tips on how to use the weather to your advantage without resorting to hackneyed writing:
  • As always, choose your details carefully. If the weather doesn't provide anything but backdrop, just give a quick overview. The blizzard was finally over. Or, I hunched my shoulders against the icy wind.
  • If the weather plays a bigger part in the story, engage in good descriptive writing techniques. But don't fall back on standard weather descriptions, many of which have been overused to the point of staleness. Instead of going into detail about the rain, which would look the same in almost any setting, describe something in your scene that's being affected by it, like the withered plants or the umbrella-less woman. This will give the weather a fresh perspective that's specific to your setting.
  • Lastly, be careful to avoid weather clichés: the rainy funeral day, the thunderclap that foreshadows impending doom. When things like this happen in real life, it's completely coincidental, so why do we keep forcing them in our writing? A rainy day can be a cozy one. The bright sun may be soothing, but the glare could cause an accident as easily as a rainstorm. Whenever possible, switch it up and make the weather in your story work for you.

28 comments:

Charmaine Clancy said...

Amazing post, I'll be referring to this one!

Laura Pauling said...

Great post! Looking back in books I loved - one big part of that was how the author wove the setting details into the story, the character's life, and the emotional core of the story! Not easy to do though. :)

Yaya' s Home said...

That's a lot to think about, but you're right; every tiny little thing adds to the whole picture. Thanks. I'll remember your advice whilst I paint pictures with words.

~ Yaya

A Mom's Choice said...

Great post. I saw another blog talk about weather which I had not thought much about until I started reading the 1st twilight saga book. Almost immediately Meyers puts the rain into the scene. It helps you feel the droplets on your shoulder.

Melissa said...

When I look back at everything I've written, weather is *definitely* a part of my settings. I think this is because weather tends to have an impact on me, personally. Great advice!

C.R. Evers said...

great list! I also find these things add to the 'voice" of the book as well.

Bluestocking said...

This has been a nice set of posts on setting! No wallpaper is allowed in my writing so I'm glad for the tips.

Danyelle said...

These have been exactly what I need! Thanks, ladies! :D

Matthew Rush said...

I'm out of clever things to say about this series. So I'll just say THANKS AGAIN! Instead.

Ben Woodard said...

Excellent. Thanks Becca.

Diane said...

You had me at the ice cream and all the emotions and thoughts it happily provoked.... :O)

beyondtourism said...

Okay I read all three posts on setting. They were great. Weather reminds me of "The Long Winter" by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her books she actually personifies them but it doesn't seem cliche.

Or what if there is the thunderclap of doom but instead something super awesome happy happens instead.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. Too good to bookmark.

Printing . . . NOW! :-)

kathrynjankowski said...

There's so much to keep in mind as we write and revise. These posts are so helpful. They've helped me recognize that the emergence of my MC's dark side is linked to the changes of the terrain she travels, from sunny coast to shadowy forest.
Thanks!

AubrieAnne said...

Great analogy! I would choose the ben and jerry's every time!

AubrieAnne @ http://www.whosyoureditor.blogspot.com/

Julie Musil said...

Such great advice. I didn't realize the part about symbols until I read it in Plot & Structure. Here I had been reading books with symbols, and I didn't even realize it. Duh!

Colene Murphy said...

I love these series of posts!! Excellent points!

Donna said...

What a fantastic blog! I'm so glad you found me so I could find you back! Since I'm in the process of totally reworking one of my novels, I'm definitely going to be back, it's funny how you KNOW things but reading things like this brings them back to the forefront of your thoughts so hopefully I can get a fresh look at the first few chapters of my novel now! Thanks so much!

Mysti said...

Love it--I am soakin this info up!

Susan R. Mills said...

As I'm working on setting, I will be referring back her often. :)

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful! Thank you. And now I'm craving ice cream.

Janet Johnson said...

You give such great suggestions. I love the idea of symbols. And I'm ashamed to admit I've never used weather to its potential. Definitely gives me ways to improve my writing. :)

nindogs said...

This is definitely a great post! (: I've never even considered using symbols - and my weather usage is below par at best.

By the way, there's a blog award waiting for you here:
http://nindogs.blogspot.com/2011/01/stylish-blogger-award.html

Carol Riggs said...

I love your examples along with this very helpful post. GOOD STUFF! :)

Paul C said...

You provide most helpful guidance in utilizing setting in a narrative.

tracikenworth said...

Can say enough how helpful you are when it comes to writing!!

Anonymous said...

Great blog with so many good tips. Love the thesaurus.

To give help to writers, though, be sure to check your spelling (smile). It's Pet CEMETERY.

Angela Ackerman said...

Hi Anon, Glad you are enjoying the blog! Believe it or not, if you look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_Sematary Stephen King's book Pet Semetary is titled with an S rather than a C. But yes, if this were a reference to pet cemeteries in general, it would be with a C.

Have a great week!

Angela

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