Creating Setting: Don’t Neglect the Physical World

When readers first approach a story, they typically look for the following key information:

1. Where are we?

2. Who are the important characters?

3. What’s the initial problem or conflict?

Writers who neglect any of this situating information in the first few paragraphs can leave a reader disoriented, frustrated, and in danger of walking away.

People are accustomed to interacting with the world around them through the senses, and the imagined world of a story is no different for readers. In fact, when the conflict is still taking shape, and the characters and their motivating desires are still emerging, the physical world is often the first foothold.

For example, in Alice McDermott’s novel, At Weddings and Wakes, the reader is drawn along with a mother and her three children as they travel from suburban New York to an apartment in Brooklyn. McDermott describes the house door as they leave—a clean backdrop to all of the family’s photos, the bus ride, the shops they pass, the tavern doors like open mouths, the descent into the subway, and the strangers the children observe, many of them gritty and worn. The mother and her children are characterized by the ways they interact with and respond to these environments, revealing a dichotomy in the mother’s life long before the reader learns that they are visiting relatives, that the mother is unhappy in her marriage, and that the family itself is worn like the city around it from time, old grudges, and remembered misfortunes.

Here, place becomes a vehicle for forward motion and also begins to establish the two worlds of suburbia and city. The location is as important as the way the characters perceive it, and the location unleashes many opportunities for both characterization and conflict.

Location and Conflict

Location affects what is deemed appropriate behavior and so becomes a ripe element in conflict. In McDermott’s novel, the dark apartment where the grandmother lives with three daughters is an austere and tiresome place for the visiting grandchildren. It is perpetually quiet, the children are meant to make their own fun with limited resources—only magazines and a window to look out (all symbolic of the inaccessible outside world). The apartment separates the women from society and the city and becomes symbolic of the way their nursed sorrows keep them confined. Even the mother of the children who has broken away, feels compelled to return.

Objects and Characterization

The objects characters interact with and the way they move in a place can reveal a great deal about them. In McDermott’s novel, the mother purchases gum and gifts for her children at timed intervals on the trip, showing that she has done this before, her control of the situation, and the children’s need for amusement and distraction.

Yet, when the location changes, the opportunities for characterization change as well. The mother, Lucy, communicates her displeasure with her marriage differently at the wedding, where she can’t quite be happy for her sister, on vacation at a summer cabin, where she is swept up by her husband for a boat ride, walking in the street, where she feels her city legs stabilize, in the din of a church, and the restaurant reception after the wedding. Symbolic objects also change. In the apartment, the glasses of Coke Aunt May sneaks the children show her delight in them and identify her as a beacon of joy in a joyless place. At the bakery, the brother buys bread for his fasting sister showing his growing compassion. At school, Margaret offers flowers to her teacher, a catholic nun, only to have them closeted when it is revealed that they were picked from a cemetery. In each instance, the behaviors and objects rely on the location.

Physical Space Dos and Don’ts

Do enhance your story with details about the city or region in which your story takes place. Flora and fauna in Miami is much different then Seattle. Well-placed details about culture, architecture, weather, leisure activities, employment, and landmarks can enrich a piece of writing and add depth.

Don’t neglect story in favor of too much detail.

Do know the layout of the room in which an argument is taking place or the park where your main character’s daughter sneaks off after dark. Remember that people go to locations for a reason—the grocery store for a missing condiment, Macy’s for a new raincoat, a chance encounter at the Brooklyn Bridge, a colleague’s daughter’s wedding at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Don’t rely on familiar or cliché places and situations to drive your story. When using familiar locations, work hard to make them new or illuminate an unlikely detail.

Don’t indulge in talking heads. Sometimes writers become so interested in the dialog between characters that physical space is neglected entirely. I call this the talking heads phenomenon or dialog that exists in a vacuum. Ethereal voices calling out to one another in space are only appropriate in limited instances and usually leave the reader disoriented. Remember most characters have bodies and interact with their environment even while they are talking. If you have a dialog exchange with no gestures, actions, observations or exposition of any kind, consider adding body with the exercise below.

Exercise: Choose a scene that you have already written, maybe one that needs more energy. Rewrite the scene in a different physical space than the original version. Pay close attention to the objects the characters interact with. Consider how the space affects behavior. What words and actions do the characters use to communicate their feelings and attitudes? Let the space become a part of the conflict and illuminate the characters’ motivating desires.

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