Is Setting Really That Important?

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We have a special guest today.  Bill Walker, author of A Note From an Old Acquaintance (iUniverse), is here to talk about setting and why it’s an important element of a novel.

A graduate of Emerson College’s prestigious film school, Bill wrote and directed his first feature film, Pawn, while still a student. After graduation, he founded Newbury Filmworks, Inc., an award-winning production company renowned for making high-quality corporate films and commercials.

In 1990, Bill relocated to Los Angeles, and began a freelance story analysis career for various studios and independent production companies, while devoting his spare time to the writing of novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is also a highly-respected graphic designer, specializing in book and dust jacket design. He has worked on books by such luminaries as: Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. In addition, Bill is a member of the Authors Guild.

He has won awards for his screenwriting, his two short story collections for Mid-Graders, Five-Minute Frights and Five-Minute Chillers, are perennial Halloween favorites, and his first novel, Titanic 2012 was enthusiastically received by readers. His second novel, Camp Stalag was released in 2001. Bill lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Debbie, and their sons, Jeffrey and Brian.  You can visit his website at www.billwalkerdesigns.com.

banner barBill WalkerIs Setting Really That Important?

by Bill Walker

I’ll start off this post by asking a silly question: Is setting really that important? I mean couldn’t most books work just about anywhere? Okay, that was two questions, but even though the answer seems obvious, many writers often consider setting in a lesser light than their human characters. Yet, one would never even think to set a book like Gone With The Wind in Brooklyn, would they? For that book the setting was as important as any of the human characters. I’d even go so far as to say the setting in GWTW is a character, a living breathing part of the book.
For my novel, A Note from an Old Acquaintance, Boston is an integral part of the story. I used it because I spent many years living there and am intimately familiar with it. It was a natural choice because it goes back to that hoary old piece of writing advice: “Write what you know.” And while it’s true many fine books are written by authors who conduct exhaustive research, there is no substitute for having “been there and done that.”

A Note from an Old AquaintanceSo, how does one make one’s settings more vivid without overdoing it? My best advice is to use just a few choice words to describe the room. This isn’t the 19th century, where readers expected to be told every little agonizing measurement and detail. Instead, what contemporary writers do is weave those choice words into the narrative as they go along. Modern readers are far more visual and sophisticated and will fill in the spaces in their minds. In that sense, writing has become more cinematic. The other important part of setting is mood, the “feel” of the place. What is the atmosphere like in that room you’re writing about? Here are a couple of examples:

Sherry wanted to cry when she first saw the inn’s romantic attic room. It smelled of cinnamon and roses, mixed with the salty tang of the sea air billowing the homespun curtains. Late afternoon sun pooled on the scuffed slatted floor where dust motes swirled in the golden light; and the quilt-covered four-poster bed, nestled into the only corner of the room that was truly square, sagged in the middle, like an old swaybacked nag. She smiled, wondering how many honeymooners had spent their days and nights in it? Sherry squeezed her new husband’s hand, knowing the island’s rustic charms would have to wait a few days while they gave that saggy old bed a workout it would never soon forget.

Or this:

The single bare bulb cast a weak, jaundiced light around Mr. Hammond’s basement, a light that did nothing to dispel the shadows or his fear. Jimmy tried the ropes again, but only succeeded in tightening the knot, something the old man had told him would happen. His tears had long-since dried, and his eyes felt puffy and gritty. But that wasn’t the worst part. It was the crumbling moss-coated brick walls that seemed to close in on him and the hard dirt floor darkened by his urine. He could smell it now, the sting of ammonia tickling his nose. There was another smell, too. It came from the dark-red effluence congealing on the porcelain mortician’s table with the drain in the center. All that was left of his buddy, Paul. Tears leaked from his eyes again and his nose began to run. He should have left the old man alone. He should have tried to earn money some other way. Now, he was going to end up like Paul…like the corpse of that dead rat rotting in the corner.

Both of these passages give very different impressions of the setting without going into too much detail. It’s those kinds of images you want to convey to enhance whatever setting you choose. Done with care and finesse, proper setting can be a powerful force that together with plot and character will propel your story along in the readers mind and keep them turning those pages. And that’s what all writers want.

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