Settings: Beyond Time and Place — Moving to Characterization and Symbolism


Setting can be defined as the time, place and scenery of a book or story. It can be as overwhelming and sweeping as the Civil War backdrop in Gone with the Wind, or it can be as subtle and small as the plastic handcuffs used on Clarice Starling’s washing machine in Hannibal. Setting evokes the “big picture” scenario of your story as well as evoking the details of a character’s life that can make them more real on the page.

Here’s an example of a setting that clearly evokes “the big picture” and establishes the time, place, and focus of a book, and then goes beyond into something more:

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“They looked out across the endless acres of Gerald O’Hara’s newly plowed cotton fields toward the red horizon. Now that the sun was setting in a welter of crimson behind the hills across the Flint River, the warmth of the April day was ebbing into a faint but balmy chill.

Spring had come early that year, with warm quick rains and sudden frothing of pink peach blossoms and dogwood dappling with white stars into dark river swamp and far-off hills. Already the plowing was nearly finished, and the bloody glory of the sunset colored the fresh-cut furrows of red Georgia clay to even redder hues. The moist hungry earth, waiting upturned for the cotton seeds, showed pinkish on the sandy tops of furrows, vermilion and scarlet and maroon where shadows lay along the sides of the trenches.”

Analyze this for a moment.

The air has a “chill.” The river is “dark.” Look at the repetition of the color red and its cousins: vermilion, scarlet, crimson and maroon. What other element common to war does this invoke? On a spring day, why would Mitchell dwell on the shadows and the sunset instead of a sunrise and bright light? She even uses the term “bloody” and “trenches”. Does this imply an end to something beyond just the April day?

It seems very clear that Mitchell used the terminology of war and bloodshed deliberately here. Beyond describing the actual physical details of a plowed cotton field, she goes beyond mere description and moves into foreshadowing. War is coming, and it shows in the words on the page.

This is hard work! Writing to evoke both a clear physical setting and foreshadow future events is all done with choice of words. For a writing exercise, rewrite the paragraphs above, using different words to evoke a foreshadowing of something happy and hopeful.

Your “big picture” setting
One decision you’ll need to make about setting is to answer the question: does my setting have major impact on the storyline? That is, does it influence what your characters do, think and feel?

A character that lives in a trailer in Alabama with a small tomato farm out back will have a different life and obligations and possessions than a character that lives and works in New York City. The key is to pick specific, deliberate elements that show both setting and character.

Annie Proulx did this skillfully when she opened her cowboy love story.

From Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“Ennis del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swatches it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of the fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying, “Give ’em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand….The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence.”

And Jane Smiley used a similar tactic for opening Horse Heaven:

“On the second Sunday morning in November, the day after the Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park (which he did not get to this year, because he didn’t have a runner, had never had a runner, how could this possibly be his fault, hadn’t he spent millions breeding, training, and running horses?) … Alexander P. Maybrick arose from his marriage bed at 6:00 a.m., put on his robe and slippers, and exited the master suite he shared with his wife, Rosalind. On the way to the kitchen, he passed the library, his office that adjoined the library, the weight room, the guest bathroom, the living room, and the dining room. In every room his wife had laid a Persian carpet of exceptional quality—his wife had an eye for quality in all things—and it seemed like every Persian carpet in every room every morning was adorned with tiny, dark, dense turds deposited there by Eileen, the Jack Russell terrier.”

What do these two opening passages tell you about the Big Picture of the story? What do they tell you about the characters themselves? Their lifestyles? Their personalities? One is a man who wakes up in the morning and pisses in his sink; the other walks through room after room just to get to his own kitchen. Which one plans ahead and tries to run his life? Which one has given up and can barely manage living in a trailer? What else can you infer by reading between the lines?

If your setting is essentially unfamiliar to your readers, such as when you’re writing science fiction, paranormals, or historicals, then you’ll need to spend more time on setting than someone writing a contemporary romance set in everyday life. Consider how your storyline may or may not require a setting with presence. If it does, then choose description carefully. If it doesn’t, pare down description to a minimal level.

Beyond Setting into Character
Especially for erotica, where often much of the emotional and physical action takes place in a bedroom, setting can help you to show readers your characters. A woman who usually sleeps alone in a bed covered with flowery sheets and stuffed animals in a bedroom with rose-patterned wallpaper is most likely quite a different woman than one who sleeps in a sleek four-poster with gray silk sheets and notches for handcuffs in the bedposts. Let specific details color the character’s personality and tone of the story.

Two kitchens, two different people, at two different stages of life. List the physical items to evoke a scene and try to make them do double-duty to show more about the character. Go beyond the generic; the presence of a toaster probably isn’t all that telling about a person. The presence of a Diaper Genie, two bags of large breed dog food, and a pile of unopened mail scattered on the counter implies a certain character. A kitchen counter with top-of-the-line imported Italian espresso maker, a set of gourmet knives, and a leather-covered lidded box for mail says something different about the character using this kitchen.

Here’s another example using a foyer:

Character A: Chippendale dresser used as foyer table
Character B: Narrow beat-up library table, peeling paint

Character A: One elegant, large orchid
Character B: Hooks on wall holding multiple dog leashes

Character A: Three matched vases, fragile
Character B: Plastic margarine bowl holding keys, coins

Character A: Large mirror on wall
Character B: Picture of character w/ dog in show ring

Do you get a feel for the characters from these items? Can you get a sense of their lifestyle, hobbies, income, and interests? Of course, it’s not a complete list, but the point of the exercise is to get you thinking and really knowing how your characters live. What do they spend time doing outside the bedroom? What are their interests? How would those interests (and obligations) manifest in their space?

To do this for an erotica story, try the same exercise with a bedroom. Try evoking two characters by merely listing items in their bed or bathroom. For starters, use opposite genders, then work to differentiate same-gender characters.

Pick a book you’re familiar with to study. Ideally, this book will be in the same genre as the one you’re writing. (This will give you a feel for how your story measures up.) Go through chapter by chapter and list the settings employed for each scene. Why did the author choose the locations and scenery that he/she used? Were all of the choices good ones? Did the settings feel realistic and vivid or did they suffer from being overdrawn or under-drawn?

Summing up Setting
To sum up, consider how much setting impacts your story. (To be fair, it may not have all that much impact.) Try listing out your scenes out and decide if the setting works well for the action and subtext. For major characters and setting, do a bit of description early on so readers have a feel for the time and place. As you get further into the story, intersperse setting with a scene’s action more subtly. Let a character interact with the scene instead of you merely describing it.
And lastly, make deliberate choices about settings and items in them to evoke character, time, and place.

By showing specific places and things in your character’s life, you’ll give readers a better sense of your character’s mind. And that, my dear Watson, is sexy.

Vincent Diamond
August 2010

“Serious about Smut” © 2010 Vincent Diamond. All rights reserved.

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