Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Setting Development: How to Breathe Life into Your Settings

Tiffany T. Cole
I’m a huge fan of Batman. At first I just liked it for the action and the darkness, but the more I watched the movies and cartoons and read the comics, the more I found myself genuinely interested in the characters and the plots, the more I began to look closely at all the elements of Batman that made me enjoy it on a deeper level. Then I realized something that jumped out as powerful to me, something that made me re-evaluate and further appreciate works like Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland…
Gotham is alive. It’s a living, breathing entity that is as dynamic and important to the story as Batman, the Joker, and all the conflicts. It, in itself, is a character with moods and history, with attitude and layers, and if there were no Gotham, just as if there were no Hogwarts, there would be no Batman.
Unfortunately, of the many stories I’ve edited or even read, I rarely see settings brimming with such life. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just as some types of stories are better being character-driven while others are better being plot-driven, not all books would work very well with a setting as significant to the plot as the main characters themselves. In fact, with the wrong type of story, that could be detrimental.
Even so, you never want to your settings to be at the total opposite of the spectrum. If the setting matters to the plot at all, if an important scene occurs there, it’s vital to breathe life into the setting.
When editing books, a particularly disorienting problem that I hone in on immediately, next to vagueness and awkwardly written sentences, are scenes where characters are talking or are in the middle of some kind of activity and there’s lots of dialogue and action sentences with little to no description of setting or placement, giving readers an eerie, disorienting feeling that characters are in a blank white space, doing stuff…somewhere.
So, how do you go about bringing you settings to life and developing them as though they are characters? First off, I want to start by saying that I don’t suggest thinking too intensely about settings and getting caught up in details when writing, especially when writing a first draft. Just get the story written first. That’s most important. After and before you write the story, you can better write well-developed settings when you ask the right questions.
·         What kind of scene is taking place in this area? Is it informative, emotional, casual, unimportant? Based on the type of scene, how will characters interact with the setting?
·         What are all the objects in the area? Are there other people in the area? Even if these objects of people play no direct role in the scene(s), is it likely they can interact with the characters. For instance, let’s say the characters are talking at a crowded party. It’s very likely someone might bump into the characters or interrupt to ask them to dance or drunkenly mistake them for someone else. That, or it’s likely the characters in the scene might notice someone or something while talking. Sprinkle in examples here and there to bring the setting to life enough to keep readers realistically privy to the fact that the setting is as alive and dynamic as your characters.
·         How many characters are interacting in the scene? What are their placements? How involved are they in the scene? I remember editing a scene where four characters locked themselves in a school office. Two of the characters got into a heated argument, one rolled their eyes because they were tired of the arguments, and the other got nervous they were going to get caught. This is the perfect scene to bring a setting to life, a scene that I’d have a lot of fun writing. However, the writer got fixated on the two characters who were arguing, and very quickly the nervous character and the irritated character were completely forgotten, so much so I had no idea where they could even be standing or sitting in the room, and the argument became two talking heads and no setting.
Don’t let settings just be flat backdrops where your characters interact. If you bring your settings to life by asking the right questions and letting the settings breathe, you have a story that’s even more dynamic.

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