As I mentioned in the Introduction, the setting is the location in which the scene takes place.
Not really. The inability to write the setting is where a lot of writers lose readers, and even the readers don’t know why. If nothing in the first few hundred words pulls them down into the story, they simply drift away.
Readers must be grounded in the setting. The more firmly they are grounded in the setting, the more invested they are in the story. It’s harder for them to put it down and find something else to do.
To ground your readers in the setting, your characters must exist down in the setting.
As they walk into a new setting, every person (and every character) will sense different things or get a different sensory impression of those things. All of that will depend on his or her baggage, experiences (good and bad), personal beliefs, and so on.
As you describe a scene through the physical senses of your POV character, his or her opinions of that setting will reveal much about who the character is.
And everything you write should be through the senses of your POV character.
Types of Settings
There are varied takes on how much description is too much or too little.
Various genres require more or less description in general. You can find more information than you wanted to know by reading a few books on writing specific genres.
For our purposes, I’ll deal with the level of description I recommend for various types of settings.
The major setting is one in which a scene takes place. This is where characters interact, where the majority of the story is acted out. This one requires, in my opinion, in-depth description. It also requires focusing down with your description to firmly ground the character.
The minor setting is one in which, usually, a partial scene takes place. Perhaps a hit man quickly reviewing information about his target while riding up in an elevator. This might also be a character involved in a high-speed car chase during the brief time leading up to the crash. This one usually has less description and perhaps more hastily and vaguely delivered. The focus here is on the information or the action rather than the description.
The transitional setting is just that. Transitional. You don’t want to have a car pull up to the curb, zero transition, and suddenly the characters who were in the car are in an office suite on the 23rd floor discussing a situation. They have to cross the sidewalk. They have to cross the lobby. They have to ride up in an elevator or take the stairs. Transitional scenes. These require little or no description.
The Major Setting
If the scene is taking place in a major setting—for example, a library where the characters will spend a considerable amount of time during an interview—the description should leave nothing to the reader’s imagination.
Let’s say you currently have three characters. One is Norman Silver, a hapless reporter who can’t believe his own good fortune.
He has asked for and been granted an interview with your second character, Charlie Task, a self-described professional psychopath. In his professional life, Charlie offers Real-Time Solutions to Real-World Situations.
This example is adapted from my novel Confessions of a Professional Psychopath and my short story, “A View to the Curious.”
The butler led me along a hallway. It was lighted, but just dark enough that it was difficult to make out what was in the frames on the walls. Didn’t matter anyway. I just wanted to get to the interview.
We stopped before ornately carved mahogany doors. I tell you, I was some kind of impressed. The butler must’ve seen the look on my face, because he smiled.
“Ah, the doors. Yes. Those came from Milan. Mr. Task had them hand carved there and then shipped to an artist friend in St. Petersburg, Russia. The artist there created those oversized crystal door knobs. They too are one of a kind. Then he shipped them, doors and all, here. Ready, then?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
He smiled, turned both door knobs and stepped aside as the doors swung open.
I walked though, and he closed the doors behind me. The click was ominous somehow.
The polished hardwood floor was dotted here and there with white fur rugs. The air in the room was slightly warmer than it was in the hallway, and so was the lighting. Thanks to wall sconces evenly spaced on the— Well, they were book shelf sconces I guess. They were attached directly to the front of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves at regular intervals around the room.
The light was almost comforting, but not overpowering either. It wasn’t bright. And there was a light, pleasant scent of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. Nice. A calm, quiet humming came from somewhere. All around me, really. Probably some sort of air circulation device. Maybe humidity control too.
I think I’d never seen so many books in one room. From behind me next to the door frame, they covered all four walls, all the way around, except for a narrow regular door in the left wall and the corner to my left front. That corner was filled with a nice fireplace. No fire, but still.
It was faced with a kind of lava rock or something. You know that sort of black rock? It’s really rugged looking, and it puts off kind of a reddish black sheen. And then a white marble mantle set the whole thing off with a nice contrast.
A broad desk was set several feet to the right of the fireplace, facing me. It looked like mahogany too, maybe, but not rough like the doors. Really polished.
And between me and the desk was a sitting area. Three wingback chairs facing me, then a cast-iron and glass cocktail table, and then what looked like the back on one of those old antique settees. It was that rich green brocade fabric over dark oak. I think it was oak. Very nice.
I glanced at the desk. There was no guest chair, so I assumed maybe we’d do the interview in the sitting area.
I looked at the wingbacks again. Two were upholstered in a fine, light-brown leather. The upholstery on the third was even lighter, and a different texture. It seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my mind around it.
“Welcome,” he said, quietly. Boris Karloff? “Sorry for the slight delay.”
I started a bit, then glanced to my left. Not Boris Karloff. Mr. Task had just come through the narrow door. “Hello, Mr. Task.”
Okay, you’re the reader right now. Are you grounded in the setting? Can you see, feel, hear and smell the setting? Are you living in the scene with the character?
You’ll notice too, the character who was describing the setting offered his opinion of it.
Think about it. If five different characters walked into that library, each one would see, hear, smell and otherwise sense things differently. But only the POV character’s opinion matters.
Note: Remember, these are not YOUR (the writer’s) opinions. They are the opinions of the POV character.
In the scene above, the POV character describes the click of the door closing behind him as “ominous.” The air and the lighting as “warmer” and “comforting.” He describes the “pleasant” scents of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. And he talks about a “calm, quiet” humming.
Some characters wouldn’t notice the click of the latch at all. Some would think the lighting felt cold. Some would believe the smell of any kind of tobacco was a stench, and some would comment negatively about the leather. Some might call the humming sound annoying or even wonder whether something was broken.
The POV character leads the reader through the scene. Everything depends on the POV character.
Using the Five Senses
When describing setting, most writers use only the sense of sight.
To make the scene come alive, and to get your POV character down into the setting, use as many of the character’s five senses as possible, and express those through the character’s opinion.
I recommend using the character’s five senses every time a major setting opens, and definitely every time you begin a new chapter.
You will find The Five Senses Exercise, which I learned from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Appendix B.
(Note: In these posts, next week will be Part II of this chapter, and the following week will be Appendix B.)
Focusing Down from General to Specific
In a major setting, the description should focus down from general to specific. The more specific the setting, the more grounded your reader is in the scene. (Witness the loose stair board in the popular sitcom Modern Family.)
For instance, as the scene in the library example unfolds, perhaps
Mr. Task invites Mr. Silver to sit, but says he should take one of the darker wingbacks. The lighter one is his favorite chair.
Perhaps during the interview, Mr. Silver is occasionally distracted as Mr. Task traces an particular pattern with his index finger on the right armrest of the chair.
Mr. Silver looks more closely and notices an odd, very shallow ripple in the leather there. Finally he can’t put off his curiosity anymore. “I notice your chair is upholstered slightly differently. If you don’t mind my asking, what sort of leather is that?”
Mr. Task smiles wanly, almost as if a regret is forthcoming. “Human, actually.” He traces the pattern again with his index finger. “This was the last place the whip struck her body.”
I’ll write a little more about this later.
Next up, Chapter 6: Writing Setting and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II.
‘Til then, happy writing!
The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”
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