Have I mentioned before that setting is one of my biggest weakness? Because it is, probably because I don’t really care about the setting. It’s a very distant second to dialogue. No, make that a third to dialogue and plot. Or maybe fourth to dialogue, plot, and characters.
Well, since I just kicked setting off the medal podium, I’m going to talk about three ways to do setting. In my mind, the first and the last are extremes, and the second is a nice, happy medium (…that I haven’t found yet. But, hey, I’m working on it).
- The Christmas Open House Method
For those of you who don’t know what this means, allow me to explain a delightful tradition of the college I go to. Just before Christmas break, floors or entire dorms pick a theme and spend varying amounts of time decorating their hallways and suites to match the theme.
My floor would probably be labeled Moderately Intense. In years past, we’ve made the entrance to our floor into the wardrobe of Chronicles of Narnia by making guests walk through coats and then through a forest of branches we hacked out of the woods. Or, the year we did “A Christmas Carol” and took down our full-length mirror and set it inside a makeshift cardboard coffin so that people would see their reflection when they opened it.
There are little details that add to the fun of the setting, but the general backdrops are often pretty vague. We attach cardboard, paper, and Styrofoam to walls to paint scenes on, but even these are only allowed to cover 2/3 of the wall because of fire regulations. In general, the setting is to put visitors in the right mood. The real point of Christmas Open House is interacting with the costumed people, eating the food, and participating in the activities each floor plans.
Sometimes I create settings like this. The focus of the story should be the characters and the way they interact. Who cares about the backdrop? It’s just there to set the mood. There are a few setting elements that I go into detail about, but only if they relate to the plot in some way.
There are good and bad things about this way of approaching setting. Honestly, especially in some short stories, it can be distracting to waste too much time on a setting that isn’t important. However, in longer works, inconsistencies can easily pop up to distract the reader (i.e., my roommate’s comment in a recent story: “Really? Did we move from the mountains to a swamp in fifteen minutes?”).
Even more than that, you don’t want your setting to feel fake. Readers can tell. Even if your dialogue and plot are so good that they don’t care very much, your setting should enhance what you’re doing with the rest of the story.
- The Theater Set Method
I’m not sure what picture comes to your mind when you think about the set of a play. If you’re thinking of the shower-curtain-like backdrop your middle school strung up for an off-key rendition of “Music Man Jr.,” then try again. I’m thinking of the theater department at my school, which is known for beautiful, detailed sets. Last weekend, I went to see their most recent production, and when I walked into the theater, I stood there and stared for a second. They built a house.
No, really. They built. A house. It looked like we were walking into someone’s backyard and seeing the back of the house and garage, complete with shingles, gables, windows, and mismatched lawn furniture. When the back door opened, you saw furniture and decorations inside the house. There were dead leaves scattered around, especially near the walls of the house where the wind would probably blow them.
Now, if you got a little bit closer, you could see that the grass was fake (they didn’t, unfortunately, line the stage with dirt and grass seed, bring in artificial sunlight, and wait for it to grow). If you turned the spigot, no water would come out of the hose. But none of that mattered, because to the audience, while the actors were onstage performing, what was going on was real, because the setting was real.
This is what I aspire to in my writing, although it will probably take me a while to get there. To make a setting feel real, you don’t have to spend paragraphs explaining how the copper veins in the rock got there or what pattern of china Mrs. Harrison has tucked away in her back cupboard underneath the embroidered dish cloths (unless it’s relevant to the story, of course – if so, give us a geology lesson or tell us about the fascinating Mint Jubilee pattern).
What matters is that your setting feels real enough to let the readers believe in the rest of your story. This means research. It means thinking through aspects of your setting that you may never include in the story and taking time to picture what’s going on in a particular scene and adding descriptive details where appropriate.
And it certainly means more work, which is probably why I don’t like it. Ask the people who put in hours upon hours of their life building the theater set just as a backdrop to a story. It takes time. It takes caring about details (or caring about not disagreeing with the person who cares about details). But the audience notices, and that makes it worth the effort.
- The Tolkien Method
I really don’t know what else to call this. The amount of intelligence required for this method immediately rules it out for me. If you have the time and talent to invent several languages, trace complicated lineages, and describe the detailed folklore and history of the setting you decide to write about, then, by all means, do it.
But, at the risk of offending all of the Lord of the Rings fans out there, I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, some imitators could probably overdo this method and bore the reader with details that slow the plot down instead of enhancing it. Yes, your goal is believability, but, to go back to the set analogy, you don’t have to build a house with working plumbing, authentic materials, and a basement that will meet health codes to make me believe that it’s a house for the purposes of the story. Readers are willing to suspend disbelief up to a certain point – to go along with the story even when the author doesn’t prove how and why every tiny detail in the setting works.