First appeared on Uncommon YA, May 26, 2014.
In the waning days of the Old South, a feisty beauty battles for her plantation. A family is blizzard-bound in a malevolent hotel, high in the Rockies. An eleven-year-old discovers his true destiny far beyond the cupboard under the stairs. At first glance, these three books—Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind; Stephen King’s The Shining; and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling—have little in common. Sure, they all feature strong characters and potent drama, but beyond dynamic plots and people, one essential element unites these books. In each, setting is key.
There’s no excusing the dreadful stereotypes in GWTW, but Mitchell does succeed in creating an unforgettable setting in Tara. The Shining simply wouldn’t work minus King’s focus on the isolation of winter, The Overlook’s creepy rooms and ominous topiary figures. Much of the wonder of Rowling’s work comes from Harry’s introduction, and ours, to intricately drawn places: Hogwarts, Gringott’s, Diagon Alley. Her expert world-building crafts settings both believable—and crucial to the work’s success. Setting’s like that; it transports us, is a fundamental part of the reading experience. No story would be the same if it unfolded somewhere else.
Admittedly, setting extends past place to era (including societal norms), season, even time of day. These details converge to create the world of a work. But for the purposes of this post, let’s keep it simple. Let’s call setting the where and when. Most vital in creating setting are the senses. Every author hopes to immerse readers in place; we do this through detail. If I make you shiver along with my character as he crosses town in a snowstorm, I’ve made a connection. Pulling you in via setting, I invite you on my character’s journey. I show you what he’s seeing; I give you a chance to smell, to touch—and be touched by—his surroundings.
Good writing requires showing not telling, and that’s certainly true of setting. In The Namesake, I don’t tell you the attic is dark. Instead, Evan says, “It’s like wading through ink, chilled ink.” We feel the dark, the cold; we’re engaged via two senses. Setting lures us with detailed description. And I love enriching my characters’ worlds by weaving in bits of my own. In my current manuscript, the protagonist, Teddi Alder, describes a late night park stroll, saying, “Sylvan Park is a rainforest tonight. The tree frog serenade’s playing full volume.” That detail—straight from my own midnight walk—creates specificity, a sense of noise, of heat and humidity, effectively placing Teddi someplace real.
So sensory detail is central to creating setting, and setting is crucial to any story. The trick is balancing setting with momentum. While it’s tempting to linger in setting, description should never feel gratuitous, should never cause pacing issues. To ensure just enough detail, I employ a poet’s tool in crafting setting: economy. I work to pare each moment to the necessary, to describe setting in brief yet memorable ways. My own work may not exude the antebellum sweep of Mitchell’s, the frigid terror of King’s, or Rowling’s singular magic, but the places I create are as vital as the people who inhabit them.
Speaking of setting, what better one could there be for a writers’ workshop than The Mark Twain House? I’ll be offering a four-part workshop series for teen writers this July 14-17.