Writing Mini-Lessons: Setting, More than Just a Backdrop

Narrative setting is more than backdrop.  It can be an integral part of the writing that permeates the plot, creates tension, drives the action, and even develops the characters. As such, the setting must be brought to life as a real place through realistic, detailed description and visual imagery.

The preliminary steps for writing strong settings are as follows:

  1. Pay attention to your world.  Wherever you are, at all hours of the day, drink in the world through all of your senses.
  2. When something strikes you, make time to scribble at least a quick description wherever you can—on a napkin, an iPad notes app, a journal, or the back of a homework assignment sheet.  You might also take a photograph of the place with your phone.
  3. From your noted setting descriptions, choose one you might want to write more about.
  4. Re-immerse yourself in the setting, either by revisiting it or recalling it from your notes.
  5. Use this as the basis for your fictional narrative’s setting.

Imagine a movie about a young woman whose beloved has left her.  We see her staring out a rain-streaked window, wiping away her tears.  This is no accident.  The director intentionally chose this particular setting to reinforce this particular character’s emotional state.  Writers do the same thing.

Even if you can’t change the setting you’re writing about—for instance, if a writing assessment demands a specific setting such as ancient Egypt—you can choose to describe particular weather, or a specific time of year or time of day to create a particular mood to reflect a character’s inner life or to build tension or move the action.

With a partner, read the excerpt from Holes by Louis Sachar.  Reflect on Sachar’s setting description.  How does the setting affect the mood of the piece?  What do we know about the narrator from this description of setting, provided in his voice?  How does the setting description build tension/suspense for the reader?

Excerpt from Holes by Louis Sachar

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there.

During the summer the daytime temperature hovers around ninety-five degrees in the shade—if you can find any shade. There’s not much shade in a big dry lake.

The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the “lake.” A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.

The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.

Out on the lake, rattlesnakes and scorpions find shade under rocks and in the holes dug by the campers.

Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Usually.

Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You won’t die.

Usually.

Sometimes a camper will try to be bitten by a scorpion, or even a small rattlesnake. Then he will get to spend a day or two recovering in his tent, instead of having to dig a hole out on the lake

But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.

Always.

If you get bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard, you might as well go into the shade of the oak trees and lie in the hammock.

There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.

Now read this excerpt from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Reflect on Dostoevsky’s setting description.  How does the setting affect the mood of the piece?  What do we know about the narrator from this description of setting, provided in his voice?  How does the setting description build tension/suspense for the reader?

Excerpt from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.

He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady who provided him with garret, dinners, and attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

This was not because he was cowardly and abject, quite the contrary; but for some time past he had been in an over-strained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria. He had become so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but anyone at all. He was crushed by poverty, but the anxieties of his position had of late ceased to weigh upon him. He had given up attending to matters of practical importance; he had lost all desire to do so. Nothing that any landlady could do had a real terror for him. But to be stopped on the stairs, to be forced to listen to her trivial, irrelevant gossip, to pestering demands for payment, threats and complaints, and to rack his brains for excuses, to prevaricate, to lie—no, rather than that, he would creep down the stairs like a cat and slip out unseen.

This evening, however, on coming out into the street, he became acutely aware of his fears.

“I want to attempt a thing like that and am frightened by these trifles,” he thought, with an odd smile. “Hm… yes, all is in a man’s hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that’s an axiom. It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of. Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most…. But I am talking too much. It’s because I chatter that I do nothing. Or perhaps it is that I chatter because I do nothing. I’ve learned to chatter this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking… of Jack the Giant-killer. Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all. It’s simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything! Yes, maybe it is a plaything.”

The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer—all worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town, and the drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day, completed the revolting misery of the picture. An expression of the profoundest disgust gleamed for a moment in the young man’s refined face. He was, by the way, exceptionally handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair. Soon he sank into deep thought, or more accurately speaking into a complete blankness of mind; he walked along not observing what was about him and not caring to observe it. From time to time, he would mutter something, from the habit of talking to himself, to which he had just confessed. At these moments he would become conscious that his ideas were sometimes in a tangle and that he was very weak; for two days he had scarcely tasted food.

He was so badly dressed that even a man accustomed to shabbiness would have been ashamed to be seen in the street in such rags. In that quarter of the town, however, scarcely any shortcoming in dress would have created surprise. Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise. But there was such accumulated bitterness and contempt in the young man’s heart, that, in spite of all the fastidiousness of youth, he minded his rags least of all in the street. It was a different matter when he met with acquaintances or with former fellow students, whom, indeed, he disliked meeting at any time. And yet when a drunken man who, for some unknown reason, was being taken somewhere in a huge wagon dragged by a heavy dray horse, suddenly shouted at him as he drove past: “Hey there, German hatter” bawling at the top of his voice and pointing at him—the young man stopped suddenly and clutched tremulously at his hat. It was a tall round hat from Zimmerman’s, but completely worn out, rusty with age, all torn and bespattered, brimless and bent on one side in a most unseemly fashion. Not shame, however, but quite another feeling akin to terror had overtaken him.

Practice:  Writing a Scene with Setting

Take five minutes to drink in a setting.  Perhaps it is your classroom, or the basketball court, or the lunchroom, or the garden, or anyplace else you can physically be.  Utilize all of your senses.  What do you hear, see, and smell?  What can you touch and feel?  What do you taste—only if it is safe?

After your five minutes of communion with your setting, take another five minutes to record your observations.

Once you have some notes from your setting observation, write a scene to place a narrator within this setting.  This place may or may not become the setting for your story, but will serve as practice for creating believable settings.  Add as many sensory details as you can, but not at the expense of the narration.  Don’t forget to bring your character to life in this place, perhaps by illustrating how the setting makes the character think and feel or how the setting mirrors the character’s internal thoughts and feelings or contrasts with these.

After you have finished drafting this setting, ask yourself these questions:  Have I used details that really describe the place where my scene happens?  How might my setting become more central to my scene? How might this setting affect what happens in the piece?

If it helps, create your own setting map or use the one below.

setting map