Thursday, April 12, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: S is for Setting

Creating a sense of place, a setting, is a tricky thing, and generally it's not a good writing plan to spend pages upon pages describing where the characters are and what it looks like there. That bores readers. Really, really a lot. So much so that readers will clap the book shut and never open it again. Nor will they want to read anything else that writer writes in the future.

But setting is key and fundamental to most stories. Most stories are tied to the one certain place where the writer places it--whether it's a fantastical place or a real one. So how do you go about weaving this important thing--setting--into your story without boring the reader?

A few months ago I heard Gary D. Schmidt speak (here's the entire story), and he was asked about setting in his writing. The woman asking the question indicated that in Gary's stories, setting is more like a character than a place. I sat there--inhaling what that meant. Yes! This is what great writing does! In great writing setting isn't a thing or a place. Setting becomes someone.

Whew. Such a revelation. And it changed my writing. I have to love a place (adore it actually), I have to feel the place living inside me, and I have to be certain my story can only be told in this one place. If I have those things, setting breathes rather than sits, lives rather than bores, is someone rather than something.

How do you make setting a someone rather than a something?

17 comments:

  1. The trick is to make the setting great without having to describe it too much. I'm glad we don't have to write too much description because I do struggle with it a bit. Sorry I can't answer your question because I need someone to answer it for me.

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  2. Alas, I am horrible with setting. :(

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  3. So, so true. In fact, just the other day I blogged about author Ron Rash's distinction between local color and regional writing and how he captures setting. He said this marvelous advice: “Local color is writing that is only about difference—what makes this particular place exotic. Regional writing is writing that shows what is distinct about a place—its language, culture and all of that—yet at the same time says something universal. Eudora Welty says it better than I can. She says that one place understood helps us understand all other places better. That’s been a credo for me. I think that if you go deep enough into one place, you hit the universal.” - author Ron Rash

    I'm really enjoying your A-Z series!

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  4. Setting is tough. It is. And I think it's something that's better when it's "felt" in writing--because then setting will "do" what Karen quoted.

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  5. Some of my fav authors just give me a blueprint of the setting. My imagination fills in the rest - and sometimes that can be greater than what the author intended. I strive to do that with my own writing. And to incorporate setting in something other than narrative :)

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  6. Ooh, I liked what Karen said about what Ron Rash said!

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  7. I love setting, but yes, it's so difficult to get that perfect balance! A great setting, for me, is one that both aids the plot push and helps define the character. If I can get the setting to help with those two things, It's pulling its weight. Easier said than done, though.... ;) Great post - thanks, Barbara!

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  8. Sheila, yes! "Setting as something other than narrative"--exactly!

    Kristin, I'll be evaluating my WIP based on if my setting adis the plot push and defines the character. Thanks for those tips.

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  9. I think you nailed it when you said the story should HAVE to take place in THIS setting. That comes very close to making setting a "character."

    Also, what you write about the setting depends on POV. What would the POV character notice about the setting right now, given who he is and what emotional state he's in? That's what you HAVE to describe, and nothing else.

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  10. Setting has always been a challenge for me: establishing a sense of place without too much description. One of my favorite fantasy series is THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper, and since they were written in the 1960s, the style is very different from today. She had the luxury of paragraphs of description. No one writes like that anymore (is it because our brains have changed and we grow more easily bored?).

    I've always felt the best novels are the ones in which the setting becomes another character, one you can fall in love with. Have you ever read UNEARTHLY by Cynthia Hand? That book made me want to move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming (and I've never even been there).

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  11. I really struggle with setting as a writer, because as a reader I tend to come up with my own description of a place and pretty much ignore whatever the writer says that contradicts with my imagination. Knowing that makes setting feel so difficult for me.

    Love the A,B, C posts Barbara!

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  12. I love books where the setting becomes like a character. I'm still working on that in my writing. I seem to be finding it in one of the things I'm working on but still trying to figure it out for another project.

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  13. I recently finished a course that had some great hints for weaving in setting. Only I keep forgetting to do them. :(

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  14. This is a great post.

    I don't think I've been very successful at making the setting live, but I've read some books recently that have done that, and I think I'm starting to get a sense of what that looks like, if that makes any sense.

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  15. These comments are so helpful and thought-provoking. Thank you for your input.

    Joanne, I think your point about our brains is probably true, and therefore it has become necessary to evoke setting in different manners.

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  16. I'm still working on this aspect of writing. But, you're right, it has to work well. The book I'm sharing tomorrow, The Humming Room, does it superbly. (Is that spelled right?)

    And I love your once a week posts. Doing it every day would be too much to take in. Once a week lets each letter settle in and be absorbed.

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  17. You know...I am still working on this in my current wip, making the setting a character. I agree on it being that way--you want to pull your reader into another world and make them want to be there!

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