Friday, September 27, 2013

Establishing Setting

I'm the sort of writer who adds descriptive details last, because to me, the story comes first.

But that means I pay special attention to settings when I do describe them. Establishing the feel of a place in just a few sentences is an art form--and not always an easy one for me.

I believe in describing settings like characters--just a sentence or a couple of words for passing-through settings. For a town you're driving through and won't see again, "It was a small place, quiet, tucked away in the woods and forgotten by the world" works just fine.

But every author has her personal pet peeves, and calling a story-important town something as oblique as quiet just doesn't sit right with me. A setting that plays a role, like a main character in a story, deserves a paragraph or so of description. Being me, I probably wouldn't give it more than that, because description isn't my favorite part of writing (for me, the story is the most important part, and too much description just gets in my way.)
"The trees on island's only through-road thinned into a smattering of houses, and then those faded into the business district of Main Street. First shop on the right was the used bookstore she'd bought her fifth-hand copy of Moby Dick and every other required high school reading book, battered texts recycled year after year for each new generation. She paused at the four-way stop that marked the center of Main, her eyes scanning over the town hall where her father had once won the island's annual chili cook-off: in a town that couldn't quite pull together a full high school baseball game without pinching a few middle schoolers, Chili Champ was the highest honor a man could earn. He'd gloated all year, until the mechanic's grandmother got so tired of it she challenged him to a one-on-one and flattened him with her local-oyster chili."
Why does this work for me? Because it comes through the main character's perspectives: her memories, a couple of personal details, her emotions. Because it addresses the feel of the town: tiny, unimportant, close-knit.

It's the sort of paragraph that you can use to sneak foreshadowing in: what buildings will be important, maybe a name or two of people who will play parts. Perhaps the mechanic is an old school friend who'll play a role in the story, or maybe Moby Dick is a reoccurring book in this story.

It includes the relevant details: that the town is on an island with only two ways off (either side of the single road running through it), there are no traffic lights, there are woods, the people don't have a lot of new things since they'd rather recycle books than buy them new. Chili's an important past time, as is baseball. Oysters are found locally, so oyster shells are probably used for decoration and practical purposes, it's probably a local industry, and chances are the probable seaside oyster shack serves the most delicious oysters you've ever had.

You also get a sense of attitude and a hint at some of the obstacles the main character will deal with: It's probably a little chauvinistic and old-school, if someone thinks he can challenge a grandparent (with decades of cooking experience) to a cook-off and have a chance of winning. This means you can expect the main character, a woman, to face some underhanded condescension if she tries to complain about something being off, her claims brushed off as hysterics: "It's okay, sweetheart; you were probably dreaming, or hearing a fox. The town's perfectly safe," when she mentions footsteps outside the window at night, or large, flashing yellow eyes watching from the woods.

For me, all that's really needed. One good, solid paragraph. Later when she goes into different shops, or visits friends, or checks out local landmarks, I can elaborate on history and backstory (yes, just like I would for a character). But for its initial introduction, the town gets little more than a paragraph.

Do you like detailed descriptions of settings, or short and to-the-point descriptions? What are some of your favorite setting introductions you've read in the past?


  1. I like short setting descriptions, but (like the example you gave) I want them to be important to the story, hinting to the plot and the characters. I like to get a sense that this story could only happen in this setting.

    1. Agreed--I love it when I feel like the setting is almost a character in and of itself!

  2. I can safely advocate for the beauty of a well-woven scene, just as much as I adore adulate imagery. As a reader, the setting has to really come alive to me, enough that hearing about the world is worthwhile in itself, for me to wish I'd heard more about the flora, fauna, architecture, or other worldbuilding periphery.

    This can sometimes happen with really, really catchy writing—I'll enjoy line after line of poetry, for instance, without ever wondering if there's even a plot.

    1. Poetry has its own purpose--I see it as the Mona Lisa to a comic strip: the first is art for art's sake, while the latter is art for a story's sake. I have read settings so vivid I wanted the story just for them, though!