Monday, October 4, 2010

Set the Scene, Set the Tone

This week I'm working on settings for my stories. I have a flower girl princess in Hawaii. A young pianist in SoHo. Five tween girls in Atlanta, GA. And four little girls in an imaginary land that's sugary and sweet.

In our real lives, where we live plays a role in who we are, positively or negatively. It's a contribution to who we are and who we want to become. It can define or defy us.

In fiction, it is very much the same. Setting adds context to character, and the characters drive the story. When a new story idea begins to form for me, I first envision the character and then where they live. For example, imagine the story of a preteen boy contemplating running away from home:

Jacob lives in a large urban city, in a cramped two bedroom apartment with his parents, grandmother, and three younger siblings. His afternoon walk from school can be more dangerous than walking down a dark alley. He sees the same thing every day: broken glass and broken spirits. Fractured sidewalks and fractured dreams. Crumbling school buildings and a crumbling education. Each day brings him closer to escape. But he's desperate and inpatient. He can't wait, refuses to wait another six years. After what happened in the school courtyard today, he knows he can never go back.

Suddenly the reader understands Jacob's desire to runaway. It's not through dialogue, but through the description of his neighborhood; it adds context to his story.

Setting is simply what surrounds the character or where the action occurs. A house. An apartment. The classroom. The bathroom. The kitchen. An amusement park. A haunted house. A stairwell. A garden. Taking it a step further, it also includes the elements within the setting. Dancing teapots. Paintings with roving eyes. Singing tulips. Blinking night lights. Squeaky doors. Leaky faucets. Spinning chairs. A magic lamp.

In addition to the setting and its elements, there's also the meaning of place. Is it incidental to the story? Does it help or interrupt the flow of the story? Are you adding something measurable to the context of the story? Is it an exotic location? Does your action happen in multiple locations? Addressing the questions strengthen the use of setting, and can also shield from overuse.

When I begin selecting a setting, I of course "Google;" but I also pay close attention to the mundane activities in the life of children: doing homework, after-school activities, reading, eating dinner, setting the table, folding clothes, and other chores. And then I apply the mundane to the extraordinary. My character doesn't just do homework, but she's transported into a different school book every night. Or, my character isn't just putting clothes away, but she's gobbled up by her messy sock drawer and becomes trapped in a maze of tights, socks, and footies. The books and the drawer are my setting and play a pivotal role in the advancement of my character's action.

Setting appears in the early sentences, paragraphs, and pages in all well-written literature. It plays a pivotal role to the character and the plot. It requires research and attention to detail, and it's one of my favorite elements. In the near future, you'll read more about what it's like for a tween girl growing up in SoHo, five little sweethearts spreading their sugary love on Icing Lane, or five tween girls navigating life in Atlanta, GA. Stay tuned!

Always, Athena


  1. What a great post about setting! It sure can inspire the mood of the whole book.

  2. Last week I heard Marita Golden compare her (and E. Lynn Harris')anthology, Gumbo to cooking. Adding ingredients to a story is like adding seasoning to a stew....or layers to the setting for your characters. I simply cannot wait to read thise finished manuscripts! Having a sweet little girl who's growing every day will, I'm sure, give you fodder for many many wonderful adventures!

  3. Great post! I loved the excerpt about Jacob. I found it compelling; wanted to know more. And I learned something. Thanks.