By Samantha Ross
Our characters come to life through their attitudes, perceptions, personality, their point of view of themselves, and the their world. The reader knows this is a person. The reader is on this journey with them.
Setting should reach out and grab the reader, pulling them into the moment. It’s just as important as character. They need to know this place you have transported them into. It needs to be lived, experienced.
How do we, the author, the storytellers, do this?
We go to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Events. In July, at the RMFW Western Slope, Warren Hammond presented “Setting - Set the Tone with Mood and Atmosphere.”
Setting can be similar to the story, such as a horror story in a horrible place. Or you can contrast the story by placing your horror story in a beautiful place. Choose your setting, and the descriptions that will enhance the story the most. The key is that it needs to be vivid. It has to grab the reader in the gut, in the heart, in the soul deep places. Sounds complicated? Take it piece by piece. All those pieces make it a whole.
Lets start with location. Location can be anywhere. Outer space, an alternate world, Africa, Texas, made up places, Russia, Ireland, a mansion, a trailer park, the Mississippi, a bedroom, a tree house, the roof - the list is endless.
When is it? Past, present or future? Is it world war one or fifteen? Han Dynasty, Middle ages, 1960’s? What time - day, night, morning, nap time? Remember this world needs to be in proportion to your story. Characters without advanced technology are not going to say to each other “Meet me here at exactly one twelve this afternoon.” A letter on horseback takes a different amount of time to get there than modern day snail mail.
Is it raining, snowing, blizzard like, sunny, inside with an air conditioner on or a tiny little fan going? Fire blazing trying to beat back the cold, or cozy? All are very different atmospheres. And moods.
Mood, and atmosphere go hand in hand. Is the place desperate, upbeat, decietful, creepy, hopeful? Remember to show, don’t tell. If you have to use the word creepy, you’re telling. Show us what makes it creepy. Mood and atmosphere have to enhance the story.
Use all five senses. Smell, taste, touch, sound, sight. Is the air foul or fresh? When you breathe it in can you taste it on your tongue? Are the vibrations of the car or spaceship making your teeth clench? Is the horse or dragon breathing hard underneath you? Are you moving so fast everything is a blur, or can you see the pollen blow off in the breeze?
Your character needs to view this all through their perspective. If your character hates living in the city, her world, and circumstances may be ugly, and cruel to her. If she loves the excitement, a different world altogether. A story about building a new football field on foreclosed land will view the stalks of wheat growing on that property as something to be cut down, and controlled. The story about losing the family farm will view that wheat stalk another way. If that location holds an ancient buried evil, the stalk of wheat may be mutated, or simple part of an idyllic small town. Same location, same time, but all very different tones, which will set the mood and atmosphere, drawing your reader in.
The word choice you use will affect the tone also. Are your words luscious or stark? Gritty or wondrous? Everyone has their own style of writing. And every story has its own style. The goal is to take the reader there, make them forget about the chair they are lounging in.
Setting is a mix of the place, the time, the conditions, the vibes, the senses that draws the reader into the story. It’s a creation as powerful as character is. They both reflect and effect each other.
Samantha Ross is a ghostwriter, freelance writer and editor. She lives on the Western Slope in Montrose, Colorado. For years she taught adults, organized lesson plans, developed curriculum, and encouraged everyone to be a success. One day she stumbled into her high school librarian who pointed her toward the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Now Samantha’s days are spent writing fiction and non fiction that covers a wide range of topics. If she’s not standing in front of her desk working, she’s spending time with her family and friends.