Friday, November 28, 2014

Describing Setting: An Exercise

Someone in my writing group today was having difficulty moving her character from one location to the next. Yes, we had a writing group on Black Friday. We're writers and we like to spend Thanksgiving weekend writing.

She said she always gets stuck when transporting a character from one place to another. After several suggestions, including “Don't just write your characters walking around” and “Why not just put her in the next place?” and “Don't worry about it now. Get through your draft and come back to it later,” she informed us that she felt she needed to write that walk from place to the next so she could emphasize the setting. 
Setting must convey something. (Image courtesy of Mariluz Rodriguez on Flickr.)
It's set in Paris, she told us, and that's one of the draws of the book. Not surprisingly, this drew out much more advice. You know, readers don't want to dwell on the setting and unless the setting has a purpose we don't need details—all that kind of thing.

This brought me to think of two important points about writing setting.

1. The setting must convey something.

There is a reason for describing the setting. It's not simply because the story is set there. Why are you writing about the setting at this point? How is the setting serving your story?

In the case of the writer in my group, I was happy that she felt that the description was necessary--not because Paris is a draw, but because she felt she needed to investigate history within the city that was critical to the story.

Conveying meaning of some kind through setting, though, is often ineffective when you haven't trained yourself to do so. Actually, it's not too difficult once you figure out how to get yourself into the creative head for it.

This is where I like to offer one of my favorite writing exercises. I believe it is from John Gardner, but I can't be sure right now since my books are all in storage. (How I love periods of transition. Or not. I spend so much time wishing I had one book or another.)

Anyway, try this:

First, describe a lake in the woods from the point of view of someone who just killed a man. Don't mention the killing. Don't even mention the man. Just describe the lake in the woods and allow that description to develop into whatever mood the character might be immersed in so a reader will sense something has happened.

Second, describe a lake in the woods from the perspective of a bird—but don't mention the bird.

You can try describing different things from different perspectives. A decaying building with the eyes of someone who has just realized he's in love, or someone who worked in that building for thirty years, I don't know... Whichever perspective you use to describe these images, you will find that there is much more to a place than what is physically there.

So for the story set in Paris, she can reveal some history and imply more of it through mood when describing the city, and as the character walks through it a sense of mystery can develop, creating greater tension that will convince her readers to continue on to the next scene.

2. The scene must do more than describe the setting.

What can you do to make the scene work double-time? I believe in asking this of every scene. Defend your scene by making it critical in more than one way. In early chapters, it can set a mood, define the time period, and introduce your characters and point of view. Later, it might show a change in the character's perception, create tension, or advance a subplot. It might even play on a theme, but you generally don't know what your themes are in the first draft.

Just make sure your setting isn't any old place. Rather it must be a place that enhances your story and forwards it.

And really, that can be any old place, as long as you use your description to your story's advantage.