Out of the three basic elements of a story—character, plot, and setting—setting often turns into the neglected stepchild sweeping up ashes in the corner. And for good reason. It can get tedious to describe an imaginary place that you can see clearly in your mind’s eye, but the reader can’t. On the other hand, it’s sometimes tempting to use too much detail, bogging the reader down with unnecessary words that only add confusion to the story.
The key to making your setting powerful and relevant is to give it an emotional charge. And the emotions that hold the most charge are the ones we tend to think of as “ugly”. Cold fury, wild fear, and all the degrees of anxiety in-between, have the potential to make readers’ hearts race and give them an adrenaline rush. Both of which get them further invested in the story.
You can start by concentrating on the weather. When you intertwine the physical environment with the action of the main characters, you show the reader how that environment emotionally parallels their narrative. Stephen King uses this method frequently in his novels. A huge storm blows in and the protagonists are forced to resolve their conflict in the midst of an all-consuming downpour, or the thunder-and-lightning make an appearance during a pivotal grave-robbing scene. Storms set a threatening, anxious sort of tone that can add a sinister richness to the storyline.
Seasons also convey information about the characters and their struggles. Richard Wright is best known for his novels about soul-crushing oppression and racism. Many of his characters play out their destinies against the backdrop of a snowy, freezing Chicago winter. Walking along with the characters as they struggle through the icy wind just to get to the corner store and back, the reader starts to feel how incredibly hard life can be when one is deprived of the most basic needs.
You can also let the reader know how your characters react to their surroundings. For instance, your character shows up at a government building to take care of some paperwork. You could describe the building as “gray, squat, and dotted with many windows.” And the clerks as “wearing navy-blue uniforms and looking bored.” Or you could pump in a little emotional juice and tell us how your character feels about what they see. Then the building becomes, “Ugly, with windows like a thousand leering eyes.” And the clerks turn into “Sneering jackals in sheep’s clothing, hiding behind their uniforms.” Suddenly we see how the character’s mind works, how they’re suffering from paranoia, fear of persecution, and may be an unreliable narrator.
Whenever your characters experience an emotional reaction to anything, that reaction is a clue for readers. It gives them valuable information about the character in a way that shows and doesn’t tell, and also drops hints about what to expect from the story in the future. That’s why it’s so important to integrate your setting with your characters, and with the plot. As I’ve said in other posts, your story is a like a complex machine. All the parts depend on each other and must work together to achieve the goal.
In your rough drafts, or your notes outlining your novel, the practice of listing adjectives and descriptors might work very well to help you get an idea of what you would like to put down on the page. But those lists should remain confined to the sloppy first drafts and notes. In your finished final draft, you’re counting on the reader’s imagination just as much as your own. And lists don’t capture the imagination the way images and emotion do.
Crafting the setting of your story so that it has an emotional impact on the reader isn’t easy. You have to be willing to explore your own emotional terrain first. You’ll probably end up looking at things that might make you uncomfortable, or that tap into some of your fears. But the more risk you take as an emotional being, the bigger the payoff you’ll get as an artist.
So let your characters take some risks. Give them a kite to fly in the next big storm. You might be surprised at the creative lightning that strikes.
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