Thursday, June 30, 2011

In the Throes of Thursday--What I've Learned About Writing Novels_8

Setting can't take the back seat in your story. It's as important as the characters and the plot, and it can lend so much to both. When you're developing your story, pay attention to where it takes place, then use all of the sense to transform a room or a beach or wherever from a lifeless ho hum backdrop to a vibrant, integral part of  your story.

Here are some examples of how that's done by some writers. Notice how many senses they employ to bring the setting to life.

From The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury

The nursery was silent. It was as empty as a glade at hot high noon . . . . Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede in crystalline distance, . . . .

Here, Bradbury lets us hear and feel the futuristic nursery, a hot high room that produces an eerie purr to create exactly the setting for a machine-controlled world about to overtake it's inhabitants.

From The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning.

The true horror is the contrast between this carnival setting that we see and hear and the threat of the  Mudo with their bite of death out there in the forest.

From The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting

Violet Abrose wandered away from the safety of her father as she listened to the harmony of sounds weaving delicately around her. The rustling of the leaves mingled gently with the restless calls of birds and the far-off rushing waters of the icy river that lay beyond the trees. 

What's lovely about this setting is not only the appeal to the sense of sound and the feeling we get of the icy water out there unseen, but the use of alliteration inside the description: rustling, restless, rushing. That very poetic device pulls the reader into hearing and feeling where the character is and possible danger or horror that lurks.

Aren't there times when the smell of a place recalls vivid memories? Smell is a power sense to establish a setting.

From an untitled short story by C. Lee McKenzie

Like a cat in strange territory, he lifted his nose and sniffed the metallic scent of the bronze figures arranged around the chapel. The vase by the alter was filled with white lilies, their honeyed sweet scent almost masking the gloom.

I loved using metallic as a smell, especially when I got to contrast it with the scent of lilies. I think of churches and museum with these two smells mingling.

And then there's the sense of taste. It shouldn't be neglected. It's one of our very important senses. Here's how I used taste to describe a room in my short story.

The entry had welcomed them with warm, creamy yellows, and beyond where they stood in this middle room, was a leather cushioned den, its dark wood floors strewn with Turkish carpets. They paused in this room between, a room that was meant to be savored like a sorbet on the tongue between two fine courses--bland in beige, but perfect in contrast.

This was fun to use something a bit unexpected: comparing a neutral room to sorbet.

Send me more--either what you've written or something from a book that really established the setting and made the book zing.


  1. Setting isn't my favorite thing to write. I usually have to go back and spend extra time on it during revisions. Thanks for the great examples. They are definitely a help.

  2. Great post, C. Lee. I'm with Kelly it's not my fav but I do make a point on revision to go back and fil in where I'm lacking. I like the revision process and it's not so bad adding it in then but for some reason I find I have little setting details in the first draft. Your examples were great. I'll bookmark this for future references. Thanks!!!

  3. Great example of showing and not telling. When I read a story, I don't just want to hear what happened, I want to be there and experience. Without establishing a strong sense of setting, the author will mostly fail in giving the reader this sense of being there.

    Great TV interview.

    Tossing It Out

  4. All great examples that show mood affects the setting. I tell students to write about the same setting, imagining a character in three very different moods, and see what comes up.

  5. Glad the examples are of help. I like your idea of changing the characters' moods, Catherine. Good way to learn about creating/supporting mood with setting.

  6. I find myself going back to fill in those important sensory details, too. They really do put the reader right there in the story. I love how you added the metallic scent in contrast to the lilies. That's so cool. I don't have an excerpt handy, but in my book that I'm about to send out, my MC goes to a hair salon. At first, I didn't think to add the stinky smell of a permanent, but added it when I went back. My recent post touches on how the reeking hairspray not only makes the MC cough, but also how it feels to touch your hair after it's been sprayed. Yuck!

  7. Great post Lee. I love setting! I try to stick with places I've been b/c I think some things like the feel/smell of the air, you just can't get from research. But it makes it hard when I have to write something that has to be set somewhere I've never been.

  8. Great post, C.Lee. Setting and the senses can do so much to develop the metaphorical weight of a story. Sensory perception is the best way to show emotion. A good exercise for writers is to spend a day focusing on one of our senses other than sight and keep a journal of what we experience.

  9. I love the idea of focusing on one sense other than sight and keeping track of it.

    Great exercise. Might give it a go today while I'm out and about.

    Thanks Clara.

  10. I enjoy working with settings. Here's a line from my current WIP describing the ocean.

    Old Man Ocean muttered to himself, "Wash the shore, wash the sand. Wash it here, wash it there." Sometimes he got angry and roared, "Smash the shore! Break the rocks! Crash the sand!"

  11. Hi C.Lee Thanks so much for visiting my blog and I'm enjoying visiting yours.

    What an interesting post. I love writing settings, and they become an additional character in my stories. I often draw on the landscapes of my native Wales, even though most of my stories are futuristic or fantasy.

    Here's a moment experience by Terpischorem, my heroine in 'Dancing With Fate,' as she enjoys bathing in a Welsh waterfall.

    "She laid her lyre against a friendly tree trunk and ran beneath the curtain of water cascading over the cliff face. She stood, waist deep in the shallows of the pool and let the water rush over her. The cold crystal clear liquid invigorated her. She felt the life force of the spring flow around and through her, the molecules that composed it, the tiny life forms unseen. This was her element and she rejoiced in it."


Please say something to me, anything. Well, not anything, but a kind word will do.