Building Definition - Bring Your Story to Life: Setting

J.R. Pittman

Through the years, I've noticed two major types of books: the ones I can't put down and the ones I can't pick up. It made me wonder, what was the difference? This curious phenomenon also had me paying attention to the differences.

Some of it, of course, has to do with the story - some stories just aren't interesting to me. Some of it has to do with the author's level of ability to turn their imaginiation into something that can be easily read by others. Most of it, however, has to do with how the stroy is written.

I am a firm believer that how a story is worded and the clarity of descriptions make all the difference. Take this simplified plot example:

A tree grows despite all obstacles.

<>"What kind of plot is that?" you ask. "How can a growing tree be interesting? What obstacles?" To which I answer: Let me show you.

From its place upon the hill, the oak seedling bobbed its head, nodding with a gentle breeze. Early morning sun caressed the seedling and it stretched, unfurling its green leaves in a yawn. Sunrise colors brought a shy blush to the baby oak as it reached for the warm light.

Although the seedling isn't talking - it hasn't done anything unusual, in fact - there's an impression of a personality. Keep in mind that this is only the beginning. If you think about all the things a tree goes through before it's full-grown, you'll find that there's a myriad of possibilities to enhance the story:

Now a sapling, the oak stood straight and tall, ready to greet the morning sun that had yet to make its appearance. Its slender branches trembled as a cold gust of wind blew past the sapling. Dark clouds roiled across the even darker sky.

Another gust of wind struck the young oak and it bent its head, twisting away from the chill. The clouds opened up, dumping their heavy load of rain upon the countryside and soaking the earth. A shudder rippled through the sapling's branches as the wind rose, lashing the young tree back and forth. The oak groaned under the onslaught that tore several of its leaves away. A small branch cracked and broke, falling to the ground. Beads of sap rolled from the raw wound and rolled down the bark.

The plot is still there; the story is only about a tree growing. Notice that I never used any personification terms. You won't find any words like "fear". If you choose your words and descriptions carefully, however, you can give impressions of emotion, as I have in the above example. I believe that it's possible to make anything - with few exceptions - sound interesting if the words are given enough thought and the descriptions are chosen with care.

It is your job as an author to bring your story to life for the reader. You are an artist - the blank page is your canvas and words are your paint. When painting, the artist generally starts with the background and moves forward in layers to give it a three-dimensional feel.

How do we do this with words? How do we build definition to give our writing a three-dimensional feel?

Rule #1. Research the time you're writing in. When building a setting, it is most important that you keep it in the correct time-line. It may sound like a given, but it isn't. I once read a story, based in the fifteenth century, where the hero ran in tennis shoes.

The further back you go, the more research you may have to do. For example, the first four-wheel, gas-powered automobile was invented in 1886, but it wasn't until the early 1900's that they became popular. If your story is based in the 1800's, carriages would still be prolific. By 1920, however, your character would see more automobiles.

Granted, some of your readers may not know that Spain was suffering from widespread famine in 1504. They might not know that your character, a poor woodcutter, shouldn't be sitting down to a meal of whole pig, beans, and cornbread - a veritable feast for the time. Then again, they might and it could ruin the whole story for them. Sometimes that's all it takes.

When researching, answer these five questions:

  1. What kind of clothes did they wear?
  2. What is the most common mode of transportation?
  3. Were there any significant events at the time that might affect my character? For example: droughts, plagues, war
  4. What kind of building material was being used at the time?
  5. What kind of money did they use and how much could it buy?
By answering these questions before you start writing, you have a good foundation to build your setting on.

Rule #2. If you mention seasons, keep true to them. If you have told the reader it is winter and your character goes outside, make sure they aren't wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Little inconstancies like this can make all the difference in whether the reader enjoys the story or not.

If your character goes outside, take the time to describe the weather while they're out there. Sometimes it only takes a sentence:

Naked trees shivered in the cold blast of air, casting bruised shadows across the glistening, white snow.

Remember that you are painting a picture. In detailing descriptions, decide what is most important for the reader to see:

Jason stared at the shiny black car that crept passed him, oblivious to the beautiful spring day and chirping birds.

In this example the shiny car is most important, but there is still a reference to the weather. In one sentence, the reader knows that 1) there is something about the car that the character finds interesting/ suspicious/ ominous and 2) it's spring and birds are chirping.

Rule #3. When the character is inside, take the time to describe where they are. Adding just a little bit here and there can make all the difference.

Carol sat on the edge of the chair, staring at the room.

This doesn't give anything to picture. Any time that you use something like "the chair", "the room", and "the floor" is a good opportunity to build on the scene.

Carol sat on the edge of the old chair, staring at the large room.

Okay. Now we know the chair is old and the room is large. Perhaps it's enough, but let's add just a little bit more life to this picture.

Carol sat on the edge of the old, moth-eaten chair, staring at the large, equally decrepit room.

Much better, although we have to wonder why anyone would sit on a moth-eaten chair. The reader may continue just to find out.

Rule #4. Don't forget your colors. It's become a common belief that if something doesn't advance the story, it isn't necessary. For the most part, I believe this to be good advice. Descriptions, however, are a whole other breed of animal.

Carol hung her head, staring at the dark green carpet.

Knowing that the carpet is dark green doesn't advance the story. It does, however, enhance the story. Everyone knows, for instance, what fire looks like. They know that fire is hot. Describing these characteristics is unnecessary, right? Let's try this with Carol:

Carol watched the fire.

Is it good enough to continue with the rest of the story? Yes. Could it be better? Most definitely:

Carol watched the orange-tipped, gold flames crackling in the stone fireplace.

Carol is watching the same fire as before, but now we can watch it with her.

Rule #5. Too much description is as bad as too little.- There is a fine line between the two. Not enough description can make your story flat and lifeless; too much description can overwhelm. This is where your instincts as an author really kick in. The key is to decide 1) how long the character will be in the setting and 2) how much attention they are paying to the setting.

If your character will only be in the room for a few minutes, keep your descriptions brief:

Jason stuck his head into the room, absorbing the wide windows, tall ceiling and wooden floor. No Carol.

The longer your character will be in the room, the more in-depth your description needs to become.

He strode over the plush, tan carpet to his favorite chair - an over-stuffed, red monstrosity that clashed with the peach-colored walls.

If your character looks out the window for a second, the bare minimum is sufficient:

Carol watched as a bird fluttered past the window and then turned back to Jason.

Rule #6. Once you have described a setting, stop. This is easier said than done. In a review for a story I wrote, someone pointed out to me that I used "tawny" no less than eight times in one chapter. Quite simply, I forgot rule number six.

Using the metaphor of an artist, imagine that your painting is almost done. Everything is in it that needs to be in it, but you notice that you have a little bit of canvas showing through. Do you repaint the whole picture? No. You pick up a tiny amount of paint and dab it.

The same can be said for descriptions. Instead of giving the same details, use brief references to finish your painting. Is it okay to remind the reader that the floor is wood or the windows are open? Sure it is - but remember to dab instead of coat:

Jason heard Carol's footsteps behind him and winced, imagining the small dents her stiletto heels were making in the old wood.

The reader learns a few things in this sentence - things you wouldn't notice unless you study it. 1. Carol is coming up behind Jason. 2. Carol is wearing heels. 3. There is a reminder that the floor is wood.

The next time you write a story, keep these six rules in mind. If you have already written a story, go through and see how strong your settings are. Did you do your research? Do your seasons match with the weather and your character's clothes? Can you see where your character is?

In the end, it all comes down to an author's instincts. Once you know the little traps that writers fall into, it becomes easier to climb back out. In the last article, I said "have faith in your readers". Here I say have faith in yourself and your story.

Ultimately, you are the only person who knows exactly what the setting looks and feels like. You are the only one who can pass that knowledge along to the reader - the only one who can hold that particular paintbrush. May you always paint a masterpiece!