Monday, July 02, 2007

Setting

Some of the writers I have been communicating with these days have been discussing setting and purple prose. Okay, I whine and they pacify me, but I like to consider that still some form of communication.

The big discussion at this time is the use of setting as an externalization of the character. For instance, if I am writing about a person who is struggling with loss and seeking meaning.

He had walked for a long time before resting against an old tree which had been downed in a storm. All sorts of life had sprung up around the fallen branches, the forest constantly in change, renewing itself. Life and death part of the one continuous process. Stepping over the tree, he moved on, pushing through the underbrush, listening to the sound of small animal life scurrying at his approach, an unseen world acknowledging his presence.

I have read some writing where an author meticulously writes about an environment, giving the characters a place to breathe and die, but not using the environment in any way. Some people argue that if you write about a room, where the windows are open and the wind is blowing through, flapping the red curtains...that there should be a reason the window is open and the wind is blowing in. It doesn't have to be earthshaking..it can be something obtuse.

Rick Moore and I recently discussed proofreading. One of the things I suggested was proofreading a work maybe four deliberate times. Once each for character, plot, theme, and finally setting. And maybe a last one for good measure.

But in working over a setting, in allowing it to become another character, in wisely utilizing colors, scents, shadows, texture and taste...one can add another dimension to a story, re-enforcing character and manipulating a reader subliminally.

19 comments:

Jon said...

The, "I walked for a long time..." paragraph is the perfect example of this use of setting. It's more than a random, space filling, background. The notion of death and rebirth is clear yet subtle and we may indeed reflect on it (subconsciously?) as the protagonist either learns this lesson as the story progresses, or ignores it as he fails to come to grips with the concept. Good points in your post.

Vwriter said...

Exactly what I was going to say, but Jon, being much younger than I, was quicker to respond.

Stewart Sternberg said...

And thankfully I am younger than the both of you.

Cappy said...

Proofreading is easier in Michigan than Ohio, since the vocabulary is monosylabic.

Donnetta Lee said...

Interesting thoughts, Stew. Setting becomes character. Manipulate the reader. I do like the idea of your four edits.

Donnetta

Miranda said...

YES! I love your take on this, Stewart. One time in a former writing group, the author framed the story with a lake, even having the protagonist nearly drown in it. However, there was no symbolic payoff for the focus on the water which just bugged me as a reader.

Nice to see you blogging again even if I only get a chance to read the feed.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks Cap...I enjoyed the attempt at wit.

Thanks Donetta, Miranda...if a person spent a ton of time developing the lake and then not using it, I'd be a little pissed, too. Water is a powerful symbol or trope, don't you think?

Travis said...

This is where I think lessons in economy can also come into play. If you can tie the setting closely to your characters, and make them interact, then you can address a number of things with the same set of words.

Clifford said...

Stewart,

I like the paragraph you composed. A lot. But I don't know if it belongs in a story about someone dealing with loss. It's a bit too direct and maybe does too much work for the reader. I could be wrong here (and probably am), but this technique is hard to pull off in literature today unless it's very, very subtle.

Will Kinshella said...

Wow, thank you Mr. Sternberg, this post was actually extremely helpful.
I'm relatively new to the writing game, (a sad, unpublished little man)and have been struggling to add discriptive, but still flowing, background to my work.
till now I've been thinking of my dialogue and character interaction as being somehow seperate from setting, and my writing has suffered for it.
Corny as it may be to say so, you have actually attributed to my professional growth.
Thanks,

Will.

SQT said...

I struggle with setting because I don't tend to bring it into focus until my characters actually interact with their surroundings. I can't help but find describing the scenery as anything but tedious, I like the move the story along with action.

I definitely need to slow down and work on describing what the reader needs to see in their minds eye.

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum,sometimes an open window is just an open window. I think sometimes setting details are their own purpose. They don't have to have another. I love settings. They are so much fun to write, for me. I probaly do too much of them then.

etain_lavena said...

I love using sent, colour, movement...I answered your questions Mr Stewart:)

Cappy said...

Thanks Stewie. And I enjoy your attempts at writing.

spyscribbler said...

Very true! Love the example. I particularly like it when setting becomes a character.

(Btw, I loved your comment on my blog yesterday. What a great point!)

Donnetta Lee said...

Water. Symbol of the collective unconscious. Much there. But, I think Charles is also right. Details can be supportive just on their own if handled well. Sometimes, as in real life, a cigar is just a cigar.
Donnetta

Vwriter said...

Mert Laub (the former head of Hallmark's sychophantic prose division), once told the graduating class of a now ensepulchred university that "Whenever I am reaching out for bathetic, mawkish characterizations, I turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who illustrated in his writings that though he repeated himself, repition need not be redundant."

Laub's point was that Hawthorne repeated his character portraits throughout his novels by externalizing his characters into his settings. Hence, some of his character descriptions nearly achieved novella word counts.

Mickey Spillane was famous for saying, "If a guy gets shot in my story, don't look up to find holes in the clouds. I get paid by the book, not by the word." His implied point is that enough is enough. The gimmick of setting as character externalization is so easily overdone that after a chapter of it the average reader might expect holes in the sky whenever a character is shot.

All in all, it might be a dated technique- one that works better in 19th century literature than in a piece written in 2007. Or as Mert said in his first year in the greeting card business, "If we can keep recycling nostalgia, the only writers out of work will those who would rather innovate than eat."

Vwriter said...

One more thing, The four re-write approach you conceived has been tremendously helpful. I pass it on whenever I get the opportunity.

Jessica said...

I like your advice about the details. I usually don't think about those things. I just write what comes naturally. I guess I'd be a better writer if I did...