Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Don't settle when it comes to setting
Every writer has a strong point, something that comes easy, something that rolls effortlessly off the tips of her fingers onto those keys.
For me, it's certainly not setting.
I was BORN to do radio, because I'm all about the dialogue. My poor characters will wind up floating in air, batting zingers back and forth like the Williams sisters at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, there's not much demand for radio plays these days.
Over the years I've learned to improve setting so that I'm not leaving my hero and heroine hanging -- literally. But it's something I have to consciously work on.
Some tips I've learned:
Setting's not passive: in order for setting to be organic to the story, so intertwined that you can't take it out, the characters have to interact with their surroundings. Don't just let them observe the kudzu. Let 'em get all tangled up in it and take a clumsy swan dive.
Setting's not one-dimensional: When your klutzy hero falls into that kudzu, make sure he's not just seeing a lot of green. Let him smell the damp powdery mold of the earth, let the rocks scrape his face (hey, the heroine can bandage him up later on!), let him spit out (in a manly, discreet way, naturally) the dirt he inadvertantly eats.
Setting's not convenient in the large economy size: Like dynamite and perfume, a little dab here and there of setting will do you. Long paragraphs of world-building will make me put down a book faster than almost anything save stilted dialogue. I admire authors who can work in the tiniest of details that tell so much about a scene. Back to the kudzu example, one or two sentences of it are sufficient. Any more, and the book starts to sound like a county extension agency pamphlet.
Setting's not just for narrative: Work details of setting into your dialogue, avoiding, of course, the painful as-you-know-Bob exchanges.
Setting's not just generic background: it's the skeleton of your entire story, what you hang the plot and the characters on, so you should treat it as though it is a character. What's its purpose? Why can't the story take place anywhere else? Until I can answer these questions, then my stories have a vague could-be-anywhere air about them. Once I know WHY my story has to be set in a certain place, and my heroine has to live in a certain house, drive a certain car, work for a certain sort of business, then I know my setting's job.
One of the best ways I learned how to improve my settings was to pull my keeper books off the shelf and read them, looking specifically at ways the writers integrated setting into the story. I never went so far as to mark them with a red pen (sacrilege, writing in a book that wasn't a text book or my personal Bible!), but I did keep an eye peeled for what tricks other writers used. And hopefully it's helped me.
So how do you handle setting? What tricks do you use?