Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Setting: An Ingredient, Not Frosting

Setting is something I always feel like I need to improve in my stories. Sometimes I get so engrossed in dialogue, I swear I have these floating heads bobbing around in a bunch of white space, yakking at each other. Determined to correct this, I did a little study.

When reading a book for pleasure, I don’t pay much attention to the mechanics of writing, but when I’m ‘judging’ books for a contest, that little editor in all us writers peeks his head out.

So, I was judging some books for a contest and I couldn’t help but notice how some people employed setting in their stories. I came to this one book and was blown away with how descriptive everything was. I could hear the waves pounding against the rocky cliffs and practically taste the muggy gray clouds as they pressed against my lungs and made my breathing grow thick. It was enough to make this poor writer duck her head in shame because she could never write something so beautiful.

But the funniest thing happened. Two pages later, my eyes began to glaze over as the mist from the crashing waves continued to spray into the air and the clouds kept hovering ominously. It was almost a setting overload. I was ready for a little action, for the story to actually start. It ended up taking me forever to finish this book because I kept spacing out whenever the author waxed poetic about the amazing view.

Then I came to the next story, and wow, I skipped through it pretty fast, but I noticed this author had the same problem as me: talking heads bobbing around in white space though they occasionally moved from the table to the refrigerator. Not enough setting at all. Need more visuals please.

At this point, I started to get worried, right. I’d read one story with too much setting and another story with not enough setting. How in the heck was I supposed to know how thick to layer my setting? Argh!!! The confusion.

That’s when I came to manuscript three in the judging process. I opened the book and when I shut it, I realized, hmmm, I forgot to keep an eye on the setting to see how the author used it. I was so engrossed in the story, my little editor stayed silent.

Finally, it struck me. Setting wasn’t like frosting on a cupcake. You shouldn’t worry about layering it on too thick or too thin. You shouldn’t stop all action to describe the scene and you shouldn’t ignore it completely. Setting is an ingredient mixed into every part of the story, so you can taste it and feel it without even realizing it's there. It should be part of the action, part of the dialogue, part of characterization so you can’t tell where setting ends and the story begins because they’re all one and the same.

Here’s a great example I found how setting is so interspersed with the story, there’s no way to extract it as one might lob off a particularly too-thick layer of frosting. This excerpt comes from the beginning of Chapter One in Ciara Gold’s story, Dragon King, which she provides on her website.


Candlelight flickered over the ancient manuscript, and Tucker Bolen strained to read the faded letters.

**Here the setting is part of the action: Tucker reading in the near dark. It also dates the story, since he’s using candlelight.**

His finger trailed under the words, and he was amazed to discover his knowledge of the language. Gaelic had long been considered a lost form of communication. The ledger, written in the tenth century, would have confounded most scholars, but not Tucker. Intuitively, he understood it all.

“The dragons posed no threat, save that which man perceived.”

A knock rattled the door before a gust of wind followed the visitor inside. Cajun growled until the scent of the intruder became known.

**More setting in this action. You can now envision Tucker in a dark, probably archaic room with a door and an animal—possibly a dog—curled up by his feet as he reads through this stormy night. The setting here also puts a mystical kind of mood to the story**

“Egads, keep that beast away from me. That artificial wolf and I don’t get along.” Rayne shed his trench coat and flapped the wet material at the animal, dripping water over the floor and rousing another low growl from Cajun. “Blasted weather. You’d think the Unit would devise a way to control such nastiness. They control everything else.”

**I love how this dialogue sets a scene. From Rayne’s words, we get a picture of what the animal looks like. The next line has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s WONDERFUL. Flapping his coat at the dog not only shows how it’s raining outside—since the coat is wet—this setting also employs very distinct characterization and how Rayne and Cajun related to each other. **

Tucker didn’t even glance at his partner. Rayne could find the most mundane issues to complain about. “One shouldn’t control nature. It messes with the natural order of things.”

**Gold didn’t have to describe how Tucker was no doubt bend over his ancient manuscript, his distracted manner draws the picture for us.**

And so that’s what I mean when I say setting should be an ingredient in the story instead of frosting. It’s an integral part and should show up in every line you write. Now all I have to do is remember THAT whenever I start my next wip!!! LOL.

Mmm, all this talk about food has made me crave some serious cupcake action. I'm off to eat! See you next month. Good luck with your writing adventures.


Anonymous said...

Thing I'm the reverse, Linda. I really get wrapped in the backdrop, the five senses, smells, visions, taste, etc. Probably cause that's who I am as a person. That's why collaboration for me can be such a good (although sometimes frustrating) partnership in writing.

Michael Davis (

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Excellent example of your point, and you were able to promote one of our own.

January Bain said...

Excellant post!

Carol Kilgore said...

Great tips on setting. Hope I remember them all.

Marie Rose Dufour said...

I know I have to include more setting descriptions in my stories. I don't think I do enough of them. I have to agree with you though, when it is done right, it doesn't stick out. It is just seemless!