11.09.2017

Setting Cues

Economy of expression is sometimes more prized by the reader than the writer. An author who enjoys creating mellifluous sentences can be carried away by describing every sumptuous appurtenance in a kitchen, to give an example. By the time she has reached the steel Braun coffee maker, I’m already skipping over all the other select items.

That’s because, as a reader, I am not a passive drone. I’m actively looking to identify what type of kitchen it is. Two characters could be standing around a kitchen island, and I already have an inkling of what the place is like. If the wife reaches for one of a row of copper pans, I have the place fairly well pegged. I can fill in the Viking stove, 20-cup Cuisinart food processor, etc. A few passing mentions will suffice, so spare me the shopping list.

Setting is still important. If you do not describe where we are, the effect is similar to watching a play without scenery. Yet how long does it take to describe a moribund dentist’s office off Ninth Avenue? A rusty ring in the bowl where you spit out can lead right into the entrance of the seventy-year-old cadaver with the truly awful breath. A bedroom can be mined for several key prompts that tell us what a character is like. If everything, from the bed covers to the curtains, is done in shades of pink, we know the husband is not the master of that domain. Of course, his willing participation in such decorating opens the door to other possibilities.

Setting details can be sprinkled throughout a scene as the characters use them incidentally. If you are selective, you can carefully insert these touches in a way that does not obstruct the ongoing action. They supply continuous mood enhancement while remaining in their proper place: in the background.

Setting, above all, controls mood. It can influence how a character feels, primarily. Yet you can also use setting to sway how the reader feels, as any reader of Edgar Allan Poe is aware. If we already know that a forest is dark and forbidding, the character does not have to comment on the setting at all. We read a passage of dialogue, for instance, tinged with the consciousness that the characters must be glancing over their shoulders for creepy surprises. Precisely because they are not talking about the setting, I am more aware of it.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for descriptions. If you have laid out a full paragraph of a rich person’s library, see if you can break it up into constituent pieces. Could the walnut bookcase be mentioned when the owner reaches for a book? Could the plush carpet calm the nervous feet of a visitor? Notice, too, that such smaller pieces allow for the point-of-view character to make a remark about them, bringing the reader still further inside your spell.

“It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.”
—Pierre Beaumarchais

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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