by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. Where It's At is the third in her series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
One way to make a setting vivid is to look at it through one intense point of view —Lenard-Cook
Does it matter where your story unfolds? It does if you want to use your setting to help reveal your characters and plot. Think about what Hogwarts reveals about Harry Potter and their story, what Africa reveals about The Poisonwood Bible’s multiple narrators and their story, even what a largely unnamed suburbia reveals for Rick Moody’s or Ann Beattie’s characters and plots, and you begin to see that setting is far more than just where your fiction’s at.
The Vivid Palette
It may surprise you to learn that the most common problem in trying to create a setting is not, as you might have suspected, exaggerating its clichés (quaint, ugly, awe-inspiring, etc.), but rather, making it vivid to the reader. One way to make a setting vivid is to look at it through one intense point of view . Here, for example, is Scout Finch in the opening pages of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter, then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
In addition to drawing us a vivid portrait of this sleepy southern town, this marvelous paragraph tells us some important things about its narrator as well. First, she’s a reminiscent narrator. We are clued in to this because of phrases such as “when I first knew it” and “it was hotter, then.” A reminiscent narrator will have the advantage of hindsight when looking back at her story, as the now-grown Scout does. Secondly, we learn that our narrator is curious, that she notices things and then reports them. This will become more and more important as the story unfolds.
"In fact, the best details will always relate to the greater whole. . . " —Lenard-Cook
What's Important in a Setting?
Lee does something still more important in this brief paragraph, however: She sets the stage for all that follows by employing the classic (dare I use the word?) formula for setting:
accuracy originality the telling detail
Let’s look at each of these three items individually. First, accuracy: There’s rain and there’s heat. Second, originality: Look at how Lee describes the rainy streets: They “turned to red slop.” Or the verb she chooses to describe the men’s “stiff collars”: They “ wilted by nine in morning.” Most striking, however, are the details themselves, which not only show us this heat, but show us the people (and, in this case, the animals) in this town, those ladies, for example, who “by nightfall were like soft teacakes…”
This is a particularly perfect detail because it describes not only the ladies and the town, it also shows us something else about the town at the same time—that this is the kind of place where such teacakes are served. This is what I mean by a “telling detail”: It does double—no, triple—duty, revealing setting, character, and plot all in one tidy line. In fact, the best details will always relate to the greater whole, or, to put it another way, belong in this particular story. If Lee had used, say, Saharan Desert imagery to describe her Maycomb, not only would the reader would be confused, Lee wouldn’t have fulfilled the primary purpose of using setting to reveal character and plot.
". . .there are at least four other senses that can make your setting more vivid. . . " —Lenard-Cook
Using Your Senses
You’ve likely read (and written) many scenes that show everything there is to see about a place, real or imagined. But there are at least four other senses that can make your setting more vivid (the sixth sense can also play a part, if you’re comfortable using it). As you create a scene, ask yourself the following questions:
What can my characters hear? How does it feel? Can they taste it? Can they smell it?
Smell and taste can be especially useful when you’re setting a scene. Just ask Proust, who wrote volumes based on one bite into a madeleine. That’s because smell and taste are tied into the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain, which triggers automatic responses such as “Wooly mammoth: Run like hell.” For this reason, you can use smell or taste to trigger a character’s memory just as it really happens for you and your reader.
The Part is the Whole
Master short story writer/playwright Anton Chekhov wrote, “Snatch at small details, grouping them in such a manner that after reading them, one can obtain the picture on closing one's eyes.” Consider the small details in Harper Lee’s paragraph above. With just the few details Lee provides, the reader can sketch in an entire town.
The Greek term synecdoche (sin-NEK-toe-kee) refers to a linguistic trope whereby a part is used to stand for a whole (“bread” for “food,” “soldier” for “army”). I like to use this term to refer to the ability of the human mind to take one detail and create a scene. In the scene above, for example, Lee uses “sidewalks,” “courthouse,” “live oaks,” and “square” to anchor the picture her reader forms of Maycomb.
The next time you’re creating a setting, don’t settle for the tried and trite. Make your setting work for you, and for your fiction. Who knows? You could create the next To Kill A Mockingbird.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and is a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.