Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Importance of Setting in Your Novel
You have to put your characters somewhere, might as well use that somewhere to add to the story. And, obviously, setting needs to be appropriate to the theme and/or plot. I mean, you probably wouldn't write a romance novel set on Mars. (Wait a minute . . . Hmm, interesting.) We've all read that novel where place almost becomes another character. For instance, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Stephen King's Dark Tower series relies greatly on setting. Much of Jack London's work was based not so much on character and plot as on nature, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a perfect example of setting at work to back up plot and character.
The benefits of the right background setting are that it can anchor character, advance the plot, create tension or mood, and enhance a character's disposition or personality. Setting description can also establish an aspect of the story that might be important to the plot later in the story. You never know when you might need a root cellar. Or a crowded Greyhound bus station.
Of course, we have to beware that "dark and stormy night". Now, that's obviously been done to death. (So has the cliche "done to death" been done to death). But if you throw in a few shadows on the staircase of that spooky old house, or an owl hooting in the woods at night, you can build a mood to match your character's state of mind. If your protagonist keeps an immaculate house where there's not one crumb on the counter or even a partial fingerprint on the refrigerator, you have matched your setting to a character who needs an orderly life. (And years of therapy.)
There are many methods for highlighting your story through setting. Lighting, time of day, weather, who or what is nearby, overall geography, furniture, architecture -- all these things and more can contribute effectively to the story. Readers are greedy for details and explanations as to why characters are who they are and do what they do. Setting can help tie it all in.
But readers don't like to be bored. If you go too far with the details, setting can become either ho-hum or distracting. Dragging on and on with description takes away from all the other points you're trying to get across to the reader. Your story begins to suffer if you substitute page after page of setting for character or action. (Mr. London was an anomaly, and knew how to balance setting with character better than most.) There would be little room for forward thrust. You have to blend story line, character, and theme with the proper setting.
Instead of long blocks of description, it is just as effective to pin setting to character action. "As Carol made her way leisurely down the path through the woods, she noticed that the trees were turning to red and gold. and the air was crisper than it had been a few weeks ago." Of course, there are times when a setting does need a more detailed fiction narrative. If Carol was fleeing through the woods, you might throw a couple of obstacles in her way and/or create a cold, strong wind at her back to indicate that even though her pursuer wasn't close yet, he was definitely coming. In that case, there could be a paragraph describing what Carol was seeing -- and what she was not seeing -- as she ran through the woods.
Just like every other necessary ingredient in writing fiction such as character and plot and theme, setting must be perfectly blended into the mix.
Now, if I could just figure out how to build the desolation of Mars around two characters falling in love, I might have a best-seller.