Friday, April 8, 2011

Guest Post: The Devil's in the (Setting) Details

By Becca Puglisi of  The Bookshelf Muse.

Settings are very important to me. Most of my love affairs with books and movies tie directly into where the characters lived, laughed, and suffered: Green Gables, Toad Hall, the Nostromo, Braveheart's Scotland. So when it comes to choosing or creating a setting for a project, I put a lot of thought into it.

Why is the setting so important? Because the character is strongly connected to it, whether positively or negatively, and any emotional connection that your character has will also create a connection with readers. Bilbo loved Hobbiton like it was a person instead of a place, and so we loved it and wanted it to endure for his sake. The Nostromo, the spaceship from the original Alien movie, was cluttered, narrow, and claustrophobic, and Ripley and her crew were stuck in there with an acid-bleeding, face-sucking monster that could be hiding in any of a million crevices. We wanted her to escape that ship almost as much as she did. The settings in these examples were key to helping the reader connect with the character. When choosing a setting, make sure your character connects with it, and your reader will, too.

But what then? Settings, by nature, are spacious and consist of a gajillion minute details, all of which you couldn't possibly and shouldn't ever include. So how do you decide which details to highlight in your story?

1.  Details should be necessary. This should go without saying, but it's important to choose only details that are necessary to the scene or purpose you're trying to achieve. It's a hard line to walk. Too little description, and your reader is lost and confused. Too much, and they're skimming ahead, trying to end the pain. To find the right balance, ask yourself these questions: What's the purpose of this scene? What details need to be shared to accomplish this? Stick to those details and you'll achieve the goal of choosing the necessary details.

2.  Details should do double-duty. A setting description should tell the reader about the character's surroundings, but it should also do more, like reveal the character's personality, mood, or biggest fear, foreshadow dire events to come, or provide a symbol that will reinforce a theme throughout the story. If you let your descriptions do double-duty, you'll have ample opportunities throughout the story to drop interesting tidbits here and there that will show your reader exactly where in the world the character is while revealing a little something else along with it.

3.  Details should be specific. The shelf in Laura Ingalls Wilder's house didn't hold vague, nameless knick-knacks; the china shepherdess and a brown-and-white dog stood there, items that were especially dear to Laura because of their whimsy. They represented frivolity, and possibly expense, and were among the few impractical items in the house. I remembered those knick-knacks without having to look them up because they were specific and memorable. You don't want to be overly specific with every detail, or the story becomes an inventory of beautifully-described but pointless items. Pick a few substantial details in the scene and make them memorable.

I wish I could put all of this together to create the perfect piece of description, but the planets aren't aligned just so and I'm out of Mountain Dew. So to illustrate perfection, I'll let To Kill a Mockingbird do it for me:

Somehow [Maycomb] was hotter back then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

There you have it. Great setting description, foreshadowing, and symbolism, all in only 64 words.

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert at writing description; if I was, I'd probably be a bestselling, Pulitzer-prize winning author along with Harper Lee. But the ideas above are a pretty good for a jumping-off point. Apply them and see if they don't give your settings a boost in the right direction.


  1. Becca, what an excellent post! I don't think you could have picked better settings to draw on and the reader's emotional tie to them through it's importance to the character. You are, and always will be, the master of setting description in my book. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Thanks, Angela. And thank you, Owllady, for letting me crash your pad!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  3. Don't mention it, Becca. This is a blingy post indeed! I will ask you back in the future. :)

  4. Awesome post and wonderful examples. Thanks for sharing.


    Hey! Check out my books!