Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Utilizing Setting

Here's another writing skill I've learned as I go: using your setting well, especially when a setting is visited more than once.

Have you ever made up a list of your settings and taken note of how many times you use them? No? I don't normally either, but I did this time and the data revealed a wealth of information. It made me think about how I distributed details describing that setting and how I was using my setting to set the tone or as an active story element. I understood the initial theory of the latter already. It was time to try it out.

So I combed through my scene profiles and made up a list of settings, noted when they were used, and what details were used. As I came to settings used more than once, I especially wanted to know what details would be different each time the setting was visited. That lead me to consider what the atmosphere or mood of the scene was.

For instance, the first time a character visited a dining room, it could be full of people, lively chatter, the clank and clatter of dishes, the smells of freshly made food. Those kinds of details the character would notice right off. If the character was looking for someone in the scene, they would focus on people more than anything else, and if their mood was hopeful or happy, they might find the sunshine coming through the windows adds to their mood. But say the same character visits the same setting later on and the mood and setting has altered. The character is sad and the room is empty. There are no people, the smells are old and stale, it's quiet. The sun may still be shining outside, but it feels hot and stuffy and oppressive to the character. Or perhaps it's now raining and the wind can be heard whipping around the corners of the building. Maybe the circumstances are familiar to before with lots of people and action going on, but this time the character doesn't look at anyone. They scurry to a corner table or seat and play with their food. The food served this time they hate, and the time seems to tick by slowly - illustrated by the grandfather clock in the corner. So many options!

Differentiating details help set the tone of a scene. And no one notices everything about a setting when they go into it - unless they're a detective looking for clues. Think about when you walk into a room or a park even. What details do you notice, depending on your mood and the circumstances that brought you to that place? The next time you go to the same place, I'll bet you, like me, notice different things, or changes in the same things you noticed before.

A setting can act as an antagonist. It doesn't necessarily have to be a haunted house or the lair of a killer with obvious danger signs. The setting might have been once a favorite place, now tainted by plot elements that has soured the memories. Or there may be a hidden danger or trigger in the setting. A fire breaking out would make a setting a definite threat. A setting can also be a refuge or sanctuary, a resting place where a character can strengthen themselves for the battles to come.

I've learned to consider these things, in conjunction with utilizing the five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) to describe settings, filtering the description through the narrative, not lumping it all together. I feel it's made me a better writer and I notice even more depth and subtlety to my story because of it. Showing these kinds of details at the right time, in the right place, in the right way makes a lot of difference.

My challenge for you is to try analyzing your scenes and checking to make sure you are using them to the best of your ability. If you do, tell me about what you discovered. If you're an old hand at this sort of thing, do you have any further advice for me and my readers on utilizing and differentiating setting visits?