Setting: Context & Picture

Guest Post by Jack SmithWrite and Revise for Publication

When we think of a novel, we think of a story.  We think of characters moving through time, growing due to conflict, coming ultimately to some sort of realization, undergoing some sort of change—maturing in some way.  We think of plot.  We think of theme.

We also think of setting.  One thing that makes some novels memorable is a richly developed sense of setting.

A novel must have some sort of setting, or physical environs, where characters move and have their being.  Two questions come up.  1.) How important is setting in a given novel? 2) How do you go about creating setting?  The second question is related to the first because in some novels, if setting is not a major force, you shouldn’t do very much at all.  But if setting is really important, and if it’s important to create strong visual pictures of place, you have a choice of depicting it with a few brush strokes or really describing it in vivid detail.  

  • CONTEXT: When you think about setting, think about your character in a given context, with a particular sensibility.  The South is different from the North, the West from the East.  The ambiance at a factory is quite different from that of a college or university.  A home in the suburbs is different from a high-rise apartment in the city.

Secondly, I would like to add, as I did in my Write and Revise for Publication,that setting can include people associated with a particular place.  Your character’s workplace includes not only desks, machines of various kinds, etc., but also the co-workers who contribute to the overall atmosphere.  Imagine them missing: It’s not the same place, is it?

There’s usually more than one context for a given character.  And so ask yourself the following kinds of questions:

1) Which setting has primary influence on my character—home, work, a recreational spot of some kind, a place of refuge?

2) How does my character feel about the places in his or her life?  Happy, annoyed, frustrated, depressed, etc?  How important is place in my character’s life?

3) Does setting contribute significantly to my character’s conflicts in the story?  If so, how?  And how much?

  • DEPICTING SETTING.  If a particular setting doesn’t have much to do with your character’s struggles, then give it minimal detail—just enough to establish where your character is—enough to establish the place in your reader’s mind.  With places that are pretty important—plot-wise, character-wise—then, of course, you should bring them alive for your reader—in one of two ways, the first minimalist, the second maximalist: 1) by brush strokes of descriptive details interspersed with scenic treatment of characters associated with the setting, 2) by thorough descriptive detail.

–a few brush strokes with scenic treatment: Pick and choose key concrete details which are just enough to give your reader a real sense for the place.  Let your reader fill in the rest.  Scenes with several specific details—not necessarily concrete—can also help your reader visualize a place.  With enough specific details, and a sense of lived experience through strong scenic development, the reader will fill in the rest.

rich and numerous specific and concrete details:  Furnish a full-blown picture of place.  This can work quite well if it’s important to capture a number of nuances about it.  But you do have to be careful not to overdo it, and you also need to create a dominant impression.

Certain places can be quite important in a novel, others less so.  For places that are important, it’s important to know in what ways, and how to capture these places so that the reader can picture them, feel like they’re there, wherever there happens to be.

Jack Smith is author of the novel Hog to Hog, which won the George Garrett FictionJack-SmithPrize (Texas Review Press. 2008), and is also the author of Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction, published earlier this year by Writer’s Digest. His novel ICON will be published in June by Serving House Books.

Over the years, Smith’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, Night Train, Texas Review, and Southern Review, to name a few. He has also written some 20 articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, as well as a dozen or so pieces for The Writer.He has published reviews in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, American Review, Mid-American Review, and the Iowa Review.

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14 thoughts on “Setting: Context & Picture

  1. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Jack.

    Jack – I’m glad you use the word context. It implies more than just a physical place and time. To me anyway, it implies the interaction of time, place and character. And part of that is definitely seeing the character as integrated into the setting.

  2. Appreciate how you focus on how setting influences and affects characters.

    If it’s not vital to their development, treat it like a minor character: no name, minimal description, and move on.

  3. Thanks, everyone! I’ve got setting on my mind these days as I keep trying to develop a strong setting for the historical novel I’ve been working on!

  4. Hi Elizabeth and Jack – so appropriate to my recent thoughts and how I should express them .. the painting with brushstrokes, the adding to the salient features, and that extra deep colour for the body of the work … a really good analogy ..

    Cheers Hilary

  5. Jack– thanks for your post. As you say, when events in a story might happen elsewhere, there’s not much point in treating place in detail. Before video or color photography, readers were hungry for descriptions of places they knew only by name. But modern readers are flooded with images every day, so how a writer treats setting must reflect this fact. In my soon-to-be-released new suspense novel (Deep North), the place is not much known, in terms of images or anything else. And since the novel is very atmospheric, I go into quite a bit of detail related to setting. Like Gatsby’s beautiful car, the setting is essentially a character in the novel.
    Thanks again for your post.

    1. Barry, I really like what you say about setting being a character in a novel. It certainly can be, as with Gatsby’s car. And also in Red Badge of Courage, the war setting takes on this status, and of course that fits with Crane’s naturalism. Good luck on your new novel!

  6. I agree with Barry as I, too, think setting can really be a dynamic character, and, therefore, provide another interesting narrative layer for the reader to peel back. Daniel Woodrell does this wonderfully for the Ozarks in most of his novels, especially Tomato Red and Winter’s Bone. On the comic end of the spectrum, Dave Barry does the same thing for South Florida in general and Miami in particular.

    But of course, the real trick is too provide enough detail without sacrificing the pace, which is paramount in a mystery or thriller.

    Great article and interesting comment thread. Cheers.

  7. Thank you, Jack! These are very thoughtful points to consider when creating setting. I particularly like #2- what emotions does place elicit from the characters.

  8. Great advice. I especially love settings when they’re set in the south, even though I’m not southern! Like in “The Help.” It’s like the south was another character.

  9. I like to use analogies when describing settings or objects. For instance, the house stood high and proud like an English queen’s guard. Or, the desk, bold and dominant, commanded respect, as if residing over a courtroom. I feel by “describing” this way it sets an image in the reader’s mind instead of: this was there, that was there– boring!

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