I remember how, when I was very young, I would skip over descriptions of setting. Impatient to get to the next plot point, I found trees and birds more than irrelevant—they were boring obstacles to my reading enjoyment. Of course, I grew out of this ignorance as I matured and came to understand the world as more than just a series of plot points in a vacuum. I’m often surprised, however, by how many people have not been able to learn to appreciate the recreated world on the page. A piece of writing with a skimpy sense of place is like a stick figure on a white background. It has no depth. But setting is more than just background—it is a crucial element of all good writing, and can influence plots and create character more so than action or dialogue.
Imagine your latest favorite film on a blank stage. No sets, no on-location vistas. No sofa for the characters to sit on, no cluttered office desk, no stark alien landscape. Nothing. Ridiculous, no? We don’t notice the effect of setting in films because it’s all happening simultaneously, but much work goes into producing that sense of immersion into another world that we experience when watching a film or a television show. Imagine the ladies of Sex and the City without New York, or the vampires of Twilight without Forks. Impossible.
In fact, these settings produce the stories that take place in them. Picture the sexcapades of Carrie and Samantha in a small, Midwestern town, or the Cullens going to school in sunny Miami. It’s precisely the cosmopolitanism of New York that enables Carrie and her friends to live as they do, and the remote dreariness of Forks that pushes the pale Edward into contact with Bella, creating the love story. Moreover, both of these stories started as books.
Most of the Great Writers succeeded in creating worlds so rich that their work is inseparable from a particular place and time. Faulkner had Yoknaptawpha, Márquez has Macondo, Steinbeck the Salinas Valley. Just in case you’re thinking poetry is the exception here, let me rush to insist the contrary. The awesomeness of a good poem is that it can transport you somewhere with just a few gestures, a few words and phrases. That’s why we’re so impressed by haikus, because a good haiku can take you somewhere in just seventeen syllables. Amazing.
A strong setting is at the heart of David Bottoms’s wonderful distinction between poetry and philosophy. (Bottoms is referring to a comment originally made by Karl Shapiro, but I have read the original essay, “What Is Not Poetry,” and I find Bottoms’s thoughts easier to grasp.) Bottoms speaks of the necessity for the poet to recreate an experience for the reader, to allow the reader to draw the “philosophy” from it first-hand, rather than get it abstracted, second-hand, from the poet. Read Bottoms’s “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump” and you’ll see what he means. You may have never done such a thing, but suddenly, you feel like you have, you see the “startled eyes” of the shot rats, crawling into the darkness. You know this life, this dead-end existence. You are filled with revulsion, and sigh with relief when the poem is over.
Such a visceral reaction is what a great setting can elicit. The trick is that it must be great, and not everyone knows how to write great settings. Too often, the writer settles for boring descriptions of nature or buildings that have all the artistry of a Google map, or standard descriptions of wind and rain that belong on The Weather Channel. A step above such pedestrian observations is the sort of “five senses” writing your sixth-grade language arts teacher taught you. You feel obliged to tell us about rustling leaves and the smell of laundry.
But do these sensory details make your writing better? Not necessarily. True, we often overfocus on visual details, because that’s our dominant sense, so it’s nice to pay attention to the other senses, like the sense of smell, which can be so powerful. But none of it matters unless you have a specific goal in mind. What’s the point of telling me that there’s the smell of fresh-baked cookies in the air, if the character I’m following isn’t affected by it in any way? I don’t mean to suggest that setting is subordinate to plot or characterization. What I mean is, all these elements must work together. If no one in the piece is going to eat a cookie, or be revolted by the smell (she’s pregnant, or it reminds her of endless shifts at the mall), the mere mention of cookies is not going to add to my reading experience.
In other words, objective descriptions of place add little to the machinery of the reading experience. You must gather as much detail as you can about a place, but you must not dump it willy-nilly onto the page. You must carefully select which to include and which to leave out in order to create a dominant impression. What do you want me to feel as I am reading about this place? What effect does this landscape have on the events and people you are writing about?
To accomplish the desired effect, you have to do more than trot out the clichés, however. We’re not talking about dark and gloomy nights here, or bright and sunny days. You don’t get rid of a cliché just by reversing it. You can have your funeral on a bright and sunny day and it might be an improvement over the black umbrellas, but you’re still relying on that old standard, the weather report. Get rid of the weather as much as possible (I recommend you ditch the funeral as well, while you’re at it). Don’t forget the people, for one thing. Try to describe the mall without them; you’ll have nothing but bright lights and mannequins. The beginning writer forgets that places are inhabited by people, and the character of a place is largely defined by who’s walking around in it. Who are they? What do they look like? Where did they come from? Are they rich or poor? What do they sound like? Where do they work? What do they want? These are matters of setting.
You have to tap into a place’s emotional landscape. One of the best ways to do this is to learn about its history. When was the town founded? The building torn down? Why? You may not be writing historical fiction, but knowing the history of a place (imaginary places have imaginary histories also) will give depth to your present-day description. Think big and small in both space and time. Setting is a bedroom, that bedroom is in a city, and both of these are in a January night in 2011. Or a kitchen on a farm in 1916. Somewhere. Sometime.
Incorporate thinking about setting into your writing from the beginning. Instead of sitting down to write about a woman who switches careers at forty (prioritizing character and action), sit down to write about that neighborhood you drive by on your way to work. Begin with the place, and allow the characters and actions to sprout there like wildflowers. You may wind up doing some of the best writing of your life this way.
I want to warn you, however, against one final kind of cliché. Avoid exoticizing the people and places you write about. Never forget that the people you write about—even completely fictional people—are human. Don’t reduce them to coconuts, clogs, mafia ties, or ancient secrets. If possible, experience a culture first-hand before you write about it, but, even then, look for what you have in common with the people and places you are writing about, and not for what is “bizarre.” Remember that one person’s peanut butter and jelly is someone else’s deep-fried scorpion. Someone who lives on a farm doesn’t necessarily hold the secret to the meaning of life just because you’re feeling a little disconnected from Mother Earth in your urban landscape. Writing about others is really writing about oneself, about discovering, through the differences between us, what it means—for all of us here on this little blue planet—to be human.