Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Setting and Detail

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Setting and Detail

 

 

Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Setting and Detail

Continuing our look at Gross Anatomy of a Novel, we turn our attention to an oft-overlooked aspect of writing: setting and detail.

  1. First, let’s define “setting.” Setting refers to the time and place in which a story takes place. It cannot be established without using detail and imagery, that is, language that appeals specifically to one of our five senses.
  2. Setting must have the two following elements:
    1. Place: This is perhaps the most important aspect of setting, and is often thought of (improperly) as the only aspect of setting.
      1. The location of your story MUST be specific. Remember, a love story in New York is not a love story in the deep south is not a love story in England.
      2. If writing about an actual place, do some research. Find photos. Visit the location. Make sure you know what you’re talking about. The more specific you are, the more tangible the story becomes.
        • Don’t be afraid to use landmarks and proper nouns. If we’re in New York, we should see Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. We should smell the hot dog vendors on the street. Taste that famous New York pizza, etc.
      3. If writing about a fictional place (sci-fi, fantasy, fictional small-town America, etc.), you must still be specific. Describe the unique land formations, the interesting wildlife, give names to different plants. How is your world different than ours?
        • Even Springfield, the home of The Simpsons, has landmarks, and places of interest, like the mountain of burning tires.
    2. Time: The era in which your story takes place will have an incredible impact on your story. In medieval England, you’ll have castles and knights. Consider, a love story in the deep south in 1920 is not a love story in the deep south in 2024.
      1. Time can have an impact on your conflict. Think anything set during World War II, or the south in the sixties, or America in the late 1700s.
      2. The time period must be established by including specific detail. This will be seen in fashion, industrial development, etc. Do research to make sure you’re being accurate.
      3. Some writers keep a notebook of details they can refer to later. If you’re making a fictional place, then make notes of places mentioned, visited, or that are key to the story.
        • I’ve done several fictional towns and found it helpful to start with a real place, change the name, and other details. For example, my suspense mysteries that took place in Ridgeline, a California mountain town. I based most of the physical descriptions on Arrowhead, CA. I set the Maddy Glenn suspense mysteries in Santa Rita, CA, a city by the ocean. I based the local on Ventura. This will allow you to use maps.
        • HINT: Use Google Maps and the little yellow man for street views. I did this for Wounds a lot.
  3. Setting the Stage
    1. Think of setting as the stage on which a play happens. If you were to turn your story into a play, would the director have enough information to determine what props he/she may need, what the house or town might look like, what sorts of plants/animals might make an appearance?
    2. If you want it on the stage, you must put it there. But remember, there’s a cost to each prop. Each detail you include will weigh the reader down a bit. Choose wisely—which are important enough to keep? Which just slow the reader down?
  4. Aaron’s “Rules” for Setting
    1. All stories must take place in a specific place and a specific time, both of which must be relevant to the characters and the progression of the prose.
    2. Setting must be rendered with as much specific, relevant detail as necessary.
    3. Proper nouns help set the scene and create familiarity (or strangeness).
    4. Weather is different in different parts of the world, and should be felt and experienced.
    5. Setting is always experienced with at least three of the five senses (sometimes all five). Think “Show don’t Tell.”
      1. SIGHT: The easiest and most common use of imagery. What is unique about this setting? What sets it apart? EXAMPLE: “The sun set behind the river, igniting orange diamonds on the surface of the rippling water.”
      2. SOUND: The second most common (and arguably second easiest) use of imagery. Describes specific, unique and memorable sounds. EXAMPLE: “In the early evening, cicadas called to each other in their humming-buzzing language interrupted only by the occasional car driving past on the country road a mile south.”
        • BONUS: Whenever you’re tempted to write “he was silent,” or “everything was quiet,” don’t. Life is rarely silent. Instead, use the opportunity to find a quiet sound to describe. EXAMPLE: “I’m pregnant, Jim.” The ceiling fan hummed overhead. On the wall, her Hello Kitty clock ticked and ticked and ticked. Somewhere, a dog barked. “Say something,” she said. These descriptions add to setting as well as giving the reader a sense of time passing.
      3. SMELL: An often overlooked aspect of imagery, but smell is often closely associated with memory, and can therefore be a powerful descriptor. EXAMPLE: “The earthy, oily smell of wet pavement was replaced by a warm vanilla scent when she entered her grandmother’s house.”
      4. TASTE: Taste and smell use the same words in terms of description. In the same way, taste is equally as powerful. This is why we have comfort food. “Sure, it was only macaroni and cheese, but it was for grown-ups. The saltiness of the prosciutto complimented the creamy, sharp cheddar enveloping perfectly seasoned pasta.”
      5. TOUCH: Often overlooked, this is perhaps the least utilized imagery. Other than soft and smooth, we don’t delve much into textures in our writing, and I think we do ourselves a disservice when forgetting it. EXAMPLE: “The shirt was rough, like wearing burlap. He put the skin-crawling itchiness of the fabric out of his mind–he only had to wear it for an hour, and then he could take a cool shower and rinse the itch off his skin.”
  5. When considering specific detail and setting, here are some quotes to remember:
    1. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges. I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure. –Toni Cade Bambara
    2. “The route to a reader’s heart is through her senses….To affect us, to move us, you must make us feel, not think about feeling. Don’t describe the wine-dark sea; drop your readers into the middle of it. Show us those heaving waves and the gulls hovering like kites and the ocean spray that feels more like sand than water.”–Bret Anthony Johnston, Naming the World
    3. “The goal is often to locate the solitary detail that will instantly open up the narrative universe and then move on; you want to find the exact song that will recall the reader’s childhood without forcing her to listen to the jukebox’s entire catalog.”–Bret Anthony Johnston, Naming the World
    4. “The most affecting descriptive writing results from an author’s providing not a linguistic blueprint of a library but the raw material (the air tinged with the scent of old pages, the shafts of dusty light diffused through window slats, the whispers, like trickling water, of the librarians behind the oval reference desk) from which the reader can erect her own library. Appeal to our senses, and we, your readers, will complete the story.” –Bret Anthony Johnston, Naming the World
    5. “Whether you’re describing how a character boils spaghetti or a child’s silly hat or the long midday shadows over a field, the aim is to create what John Gardner famously called a ‘vivid and continuous’ dream in the reader’s mind. This work requires that your language and imagery be neither vague nor trite nor flashy.” –Bret Anthony Johnston, Naming the World
    6. “…the biggest traps within descriptive writing are a lack of precision in the language and an authorial tendency to arbitrarily include details rather than letting imagery evolve from the characters…” –Bret Anthony Johnston, Naming the World
  6. Looking for some exercises to help develop setting? Here are a few scenes that can help you maximize your setting in your novel:
    1. Homecoming—A character returns to the city/town of their childhood after twenty years. How has it changed? What hasn’t changed? How does this impact your character?
    2. Destroy what you love—a character witnesses the destruction of a place he or she has strong feelings for.
    3. Setting as conflict—an element of the setting creates the conflict (lost in the desert, stuck in a storm, behind enemy lines etc.)
    4. The move–a character moves from their home of twelve years (or so) to a new town far away. How is it different from home in terms of weather? People? Culture? Customs? Politics? Etc.


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