Setting is less important than characterization with respect to advancing the conflicts of a narrative, but it enriches the story in ways that engage the reader. Some genres, particularly those in which world building or discovery is essential, rely heavily on setting and the author’s ability to promote a reader’s visualization. Accurate visualization creates believability that can overcome incredulity.
Science fiction and fantasy typically are reliant on world building. When the setting is an alien environment, a ship in space, or land in which magic is a reality, the author can’t expect the reader to accept futuristic technology or supernatural creatures unless those things are described in a concrete way. Besides research into or familiarity with the aspects of setting which enhance a story, it’s advisable to create aids. Maps can be useful to prevent errors of omission or direction. Readers are notoriously adept at detecting these problems when they immerse themselves in a story. It’s hard to be convincing if one gets lost in one’s own creation. Consistency is good, as well. When traversing familiar territory, it should be familiar.
Mapping can apply to interiors, too. Mysteries often rely on environmental cues to create dramatic irony or illuminate a character’s powers of observation. From The Adventure of the Dancing Men to the latest episode of Psych, seeing through the eyes of a master detective enhances the enjoyment of the chase. A hedge maze or an interstellar ark would benefit from the same treatment. Where a character has been, is, and will be are equally important in maintaining continuity in the narrative.
In general terms, it’s always a bad idea to thrust a reader into a “white room.” I believe this usually happens when a writer is impatient to get on with it and gives short shrift to a new setting in order to hasten an important conversation or event. This is seldom appreciated by the reader. Facilitating visualization of the setting not only establishes a space in which characters can interact, but also distances it with respect to the
action. By that I mean the reader won’t be distracted by unnecessary curiosity about the uncertain setting when critical goings-on transpire through dialogue or exposition. Awareness of one’s surroundings is a human trait, even if the result is dismissive. Unless a threshold of
information appropriate to the events transpiring is crossed, the writer creates an itch that the reader can’t scratch.
In some cases, the reverse can be just as counterproductive. Indulging in
lurid, baroque exercises in the use of modifiers for no other purpose than
stylistic choice is just as annoying as the white room. Not only because wading through dense exposition needlessly delays the reader’s arrival at the action but it implies hubris on the part of the writer, a certain superiority to and contempt for the reader. Like it or lump it, this is my signature flair, my je ne sais quoi. That sort of attitude may create a cult following and not much else.
Illuminating setting is accomplished through a combination of dialogue and exposition. Regarding dialogue, the concept is easily grasped.
“Say, Jim, is that a picture of your wife and kids? Was this taken on the pier?”
“You’re crazy if you believe these iron bars will hold me.”
“That’s the heaviest door I’ve ever seen, and you need to oil the hinges.”
Evoking a mental image, even if it’s not precisely what the author intended, enriches the setting and allows the reader to create a world through which the characters move. The visual should match the needs of the narrative and the conflict. If the trip from point A to point B is the first, details of the surroundings are good, even if nothing important happens. One shouldn’t do it again. Description of the environment has no entertainment value in itself. Don’t expect to wow the reader with pretty pictures that are discarded because there’s no relevance to the action.
Exposition of the setting is usually accomplished through the inner dialogue of the character in the PoV focus. This is the preferred method because it allows the reader to observe those things which the character in question considers significant, important. Then, too, the cues taken from such observations advance characterization. Since, as I always aver and believe, the characters are primarily responsible for advancing the central conflict, using their perspectives to color perceptions is perfectly legitimate. It’s secondhand experience, which applies to storytelling, as well.
As usual, I’ll give an example from my book, Never, that combines all the mechanics I’ve discussed herein.
Roger waited on the landing in front of the Gardners’ door and resisted the urge to admire his new suit, charcoal with gray pinstripes. The cuffs of his
sharply creased trousers revealed the toes of shiny oxblood wingtips. Crisp linen lay cool against his skin. White shirt cuffs peeked out from jacket sleeves. The double Windsor knot in his navy and maroon-striped silk tie rubbed smoothly under his chin. In another life, he might’ve been a banker or lawyer. Roger rapped on the door.
“Aren’t you done in there? Let me have a look, Sis.”
He heard the slap of bare feet running across wooden flooring. “No! I’m not ready!”
He jiggled the doorknob.
“You can’t open the door yet! Don’t peek!”
A smile split his face. “I’m going to have a smoke, Sis. Want one?” Roger lit two Chesterfields and waited.
The door cracked and a small hand wiggled through the opening. He placed a fag between her fingers and the hand disappeared with a slam of the door.
“You know, it’s not necessary to spend so much time dolling up. You’re always the prettiest girl I see, no matter where we go.”
A giggle followed by coughing. “Roger!” Rhythmic thumping and then quiet. He put his ear to the door but heard only the floor creaking
“You can come in now.”
Roger straightened his face. He turned the knob and gave the door push. When it creaked to a stop, he looked up. She stood at the far wall, bathed in sunbeams coming through the windows. Her hair had become white with a crown of apple blossoms. Tinkie wore a strapless sheath, which clung to her curves, layered with gossamer bits of silver lace that seemed to float in the air and reflected iridescent glory at every languid movement. The skirt stopped well above her knees, revealing her slender legs. Her visage transfixed him, as a man seeing a sylph step out of thin
Tinkie’s eyes opened wide and a blush colored her cheeks. She fidgeted and looked at the floor. Her voice became a whisper. “Roger?”
He closed the door behind him. It felt wrong to stand over her, so he knelt.
If you have questions, ping me. I’m pretty easy to find.
Next week, um, well, I’ll think of something. Until then, be well.