Sunday, March 7, 2010

Are You Using Setting to Your Full Advantage?

I'm choosing random exercises from Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and since spring is in the air, when my finger landed on Setting I was pleasantly pleased. Setting, what Donald Maass refers to as The Psychology of Place, is as important and vital to your story as good characterization and strong plot. But of course, you knew that.

Depending on how many protagonists you have in your story, how does Setting change, influence, motivate or stagnate each of them? If only one protagonist, how does her/his perception of place add a dimension to the story that is unique and original?

Examples: One can only imagine how a character like Adolf Hitler perceives Heaven compared to someone like Harry Potter or Anna Karenina. Or how about during the Olympics, when reporters questioned visitors about Vancouver's weather, those from Russia and the Netherlands (north of 60) were extremely thrilled by how warm it was. Visitors from Florida, California, South Africa and tropical places reported they were freezing.

The idea is to take every opportunity present to use Setting to add diamonds to your story. Use as many settings as possible. And if not, ask yourself why not? Settings cannot be separated from your POV character. As Mr. Maass explain, " and perception are inextricably entwined."

Have you ever visited Seattle, Washington? If you've lived there your entire life, your perceptions will differ from someone who grew up there, left when they were fifteen, and returned forty years later. Life's experiences alters our perceptions. And we're different beings at the age of fifteen verses fifty.

Here's how Valerie McCormick first perceives Seattle during a visit to Lake Union.

Excerpt from Dead Witness, Chapter One
Camera in hand, Valerie McCormick stepped from the bus into intense daylight. She put on her sunglasses and crossed the grass to the edge of the hill. Seattle's skyline loomed in the distance like a giant sandcastle. Closer in, waves rocked elegant yachts, sailboats, and cruisers docked at brown scribbled wharves, jutting along the waterfront. Fifty feet below her, a chain linked fence enclosed acres of quiet warehouses, buildings, and small sheds in both directions. Just inside the gate was the marina office.

Several months later, after Valerie is forced to allow the FBI to fake her death and convince her family she's dead, her perception changes.

Excerpt from Dead Witness, Chapter Twenty-One

Sounds of rain tapping on the patio doors pulled Valerie like a kingfisher to water. After the first two dry weeks of April, the rain cascading down the concrete structures and the darkened glass, made everything look untarnished. Traffic moved below, and people scurried down the sidewalks like ants searching for spilt sugar. Beyond mankind and his impressive towers were things more regal: hazy-gray sky, fir trees, ocean, and snow-capped mountains.
The city was beautiful. Valerie hated it. 
"... insane ... " somebody behind her said.

I published Dead Witness in July 2008, and today I'd like to think I could do a better job of conveying who Valerie is through her sense of place. But that's what writing is about: improving with each book.

Now it's your turn. Write a paragraph with your character experiencing a specific setting. Use all his senses. Don't think, just write. Try first-person present tense. Then third-person past tense. Or first-person past perfect. It doesn't matter.

Then, move forward in time, months, years, and write a paragraph from the same POV in the same setting. You can see how it's imperative that you fully understand who your POV character is and how they have evolved. Because if you describe the setting using all their senses, the setting becomes as important a character in your story as the protagonist.

--happy writing


  1. Thanks - this is a very timely post for me! Setting plays a huge role in my WIP. (I should pull out Maass' book again myself -- lots of good stuff in there!)

  2. Hi Shari. Glad my timing was on the mark. Best of luck with your WIP.

  3. I like the examples provided--perception is everything!

    Thanks for the info.

  4. Thanks, Karen. And thanks for stopping by.

  5. A great post and some wonderful examples of how to use settings.

  6. Thank you, Anita. I'm very happy you stopped by and found something useful.


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