◎ Introducing Setting

October 16, 2012

Setting is difficult for most writers to establish effectively. How do you introduce it? How do you paint a scene with just the right amount of detail? How do you ensure the reader sees approximately the same setting you, the author, want them to see?

There is no easy answer to this question, and there isn't necessarily a right answer. In fact, there are many ways to introduce setting into a scene. Of course, these methods are contingent on the type of novel you're writing and the motivations/personalities of your characters.

There are several common "rules" to follow for introducing setting no matter which of the categories your works falls into below. Note that I am assuming you are writing an action/conflict-driven novel.

The elements of a setting should be introduced only if they...

  • Directly affect a character
  • Reveal something new about a character or reinforce a significant character trait
  • Are essential to the plot of the novel
  • Drive the plot of the novel forward
  • Are essential to understanding the physical space of a scene and the events which occur therein
  • Will return in some meaningful way in a later scene

◎ Show, Don't Tell: Relevancy

This is the strategy I am most familiar and comfortable with, and is what I try to utilize in my own writing. If your novel is very action and conflict-driven, setting should be introduced on an as-need basis. For example, you should refrain from describing an entire scene upfront and instead introduce elements as they become relevant to the character. A half-baked example of telling:

The walls of my bedroom are pitch-black and covered with Metallica posters. To Mom's delight, my floor is a vast wasteland of dirty clothes.
My laptop is on my bed, so I go over to it and open up the Terminal application. I need to hack the code before the world ends.

Aside from being poorly written, the up-front introduction of setting did nothing to make that passage compelling. Aside from the laptop, the MC doesn't actually interact with the rest of his setting. Although we do learn that the MC has a collection of Metallica posters and is messy, the entire first chunk could be—and should be—omitted, as it doesn't simultaneously advance the story.

However, you can have your cake and eat it too. If you want to emphasize certain details, consider giving them an active role the story. By doing so, you can establish the aesthetics of a space while driving the plot forward.

My laptop is on the bed. I can see it from all the way down the hall. The glow of the screen lights up my Metallica posters, causing the band member's faces to become so distorted and monstrous that the sight of them makes me fall flat on my ass. I'm certain it's a sign that terrible, terrible things are about to happen, and I'm the only guy alive who can stop them—assuming I can quit getting scared shitless by omens and shadows on the walls. Then again, maybe it's a good thing. The fact that monsters really do exist ought to be keeping me on my toes. 
I dust myself off, climb through the potentially monster-laden mounds of dirty laundry on the floor, and pull up the Terminal application on my laptop.
          I need to hack the code before the world ends.

Not the best writing you'll ever read, but you can see what I did in terms of the setting. In the second example, the setting plays an active role in the story. The laptop appears sinister, the distorted faces reflect the MC's own feelings of distress, and the clothes become an obstacle with major plot-point potential (enemy trips over pile at critical moment, monster lurks beneath pile and eats MC's laptop, etc). We also learn that we can see the MC's bed from down the hall, but this detail is included only because it is relevant to understanding the rest of the passage. If he hadn't looked down the hall, he wouldn't have seen the chilling image, and the knowledge that his bed is visible from down the hall wouldn't have mattered.

Of course, a mix of both is good. There are times where you will need to quickly lay out a setting, and when those times come, remember to include only the bare basics. You can get to everything else as it comes up.

◎ Scene Painting

One of the notable things about Ann Radcliffe's gothic novel The Italian is that she utilizes a technique called Scene Painting. In the novel, scenes are revisited time and time again, and each character who views the scene experiences it differently than the character(s) before them.   Radcliffe uses Scene Painting to invest particular landscapes with complexes of emotional meaning for her characters. What this means is that multiple characters will view the same landscape, and through their perceptions of that landscape, the reader will gain insight into the character's emotions. Additionally, individual characters will make the scene their own and form associations with particular details strewn throughout. These memories will make the landscape more poignant in later viewings, which will in turn communicate further details about the character's emotions to the reader.

In The Italian, Ellena's dying aunt, Bianchi, has a much less optimistic view of the Bay of Naples than her niece. From that which Bianchi sees as life passing her by (marked by her attention to the dimming sunset and vanishing ships), Ellena extrapolates features which depict inspiration and hope.

◎ Characterization

Over-description and simplification of a scene may, while looked down upon otherwise, be helpful in establishing a character as a very regimented, structuralist individual. For example, the character would evaluate and relate the details of each room and setting as they are encountered so as to demonstrate the character's uncertainty and need for control in unfamiliar situations. Of course, the reader will hope the character grows out of this habit and becomes more at ease and interesting, and whether the character advances in this way or not is up to you. If your character is assertive, brave, or in other ways unlike the character type previously described, it would not be in their nature to enter a new setting, make a mental checklist of everything it contains, and be unable to proceed with things until their sense of the setting is fully established.

◎ Stream-of-Consciousness

My literary fiction novel Flowers When You're Dead is written as a stream-of-consciousness confessional/journal, which allows Daron to describe a scene upfront simply because it is on his mind at the present moment. However, I consciously allow him to ramble on only about elements of the setting which are applicable to/will affect him during the time period he is relating in his journal. In some ways, he is like the character described in the previous paragraph in that he is overwhelmed by new situations. However, a key difference is that he is also curious and eager to experience them, so while a regimented and hesitant character would examine every last detail, Daron mentions only elements of the space which he is unfamiliar with or that have, again, affected him in some way at some point in his life. Unlike the regimented character, Daron doesn't care that the cafe has twelve mahogany tables outfitted with salt and pepper shakers and ketchup—and neither does the reader. 

◎ Establishing Opulence

(Added 10/18) If you want to establish a location as being incredibly opulent, the best way to do so is to bombard the reader with exquisite detail. The reader is overwhelmed, the characters are overwhelmed, and any aspect of the setting that bears significance later on can surely be brought to attention again in one of the manners listed above. Opulence may also be relative: for example, a chronically homeless individual may describe the opulence of a middle-class home in the same way a middle-class homeowner would describe a multi-millionaire's mansion.

I'm sure I missed some perspectives, so please leave a comment if you have anything to add. Which approach do you plan to take?

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