Monday, March 19, 2012

Far, Far, and Away...

In the book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, there is a most valuable chapter on setting and what it means to the story. I'd like to share some insights I learned from this chapter....


"Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breath." -page 176

Most writers of fiction understand the idea of setting, but as a new writer, I didn't understand the idea of atmosphere.

When writing the setting, it is most important for the writer to engage the senses. What is the weather? The historical period? The time of day? Why does this matter at all? It matters to the reader. 

What is the tone of the setting? Does that truly matter? Well, consider a murder mystery. Would it be beneficial to describe the setting of the murder as dark, sinister, solemn...or bright, sunny, formal? Who knows? It's YOUR story. You tell the reader!

A sinister atmosphere might be best with a mystery. Think Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" where the day is described as dull, dark, and soundless. Those words grab the reader and immediately reveals the atmosphere. 

Notice the trees in the foreground, the green grass in the middle ground,
 and the trees in the background. By doing this form of layering, the painter forces your eye
deeper into the painting...

 "If character is the foreground of fiction, setting is the background, and as in a painting's composition, the foreground must be in harmony or in conflict with the background." -page 177

Ahh, yes...painting. To me, I see exactly what this sentence is saying because I am a painter and I also teach visual art. I often would tell my students to keep in mind the foreground, middle ground, and background of the works-in-progress whether it is a painting, graphic piece, or drawing. The human eye doesn't just see one thing. The human eye sees many things.

Think of your mind's eye. 

Your readers want to know how the background works into the story or character. You must decide whether the background will be in harmony or in conflict with the foreground. For instance, what if your story is a murder mystery and you want the murder to occur on a gloriously sunny day. Perhaps you decide this because your murderer is a little old lady who loves to garden. See how this works with the foreground? 

"One of the most economical means of sketching a character is simply to show readers a personal space that the character has created..." -page 178

This aspect of background is always a challenge for me. But this is a great piece of advice for the writer. Want the reader to know who your character is? Show us their living space. Are they meticulously or obsessively clean? This may tell us volumes about the character. Is she a slob? Show us why. 

How would you describe a dorm room? Think of the posters on the wall, the computers on the desk, the desk itself...the bed, the carpet, the clothing. How does this room look, smell, feel? Show the reader. 

"In some rooms, you are always trapped; you enter them with a grim purpose and escape them as soon as you can..."-page 180

Your setting(s) should have some emotion involved. Why? Think about the settings you encounter on a daily basis. Do you enjoy coming home? Why or why not? Do you have a favorite restaurant? Why is it your favorite? How does going to work make you feel? What about the dentist?

Emotion plays a most important part in your fiction because it plays an important part in your readers' lives. Think about it. Think about your character. Why doesn't he enjoy going down to the basement? Why doesn't she enjoy going to work?

Show us!

Well, I hope you have learned a few things from just a few aspects of setting I learned from this fabulous book. I highly recommend it for the writer of fiction. It has helped me add much depth to my writing and I still have so much more to learn!

Your Turn: How do you add emotion to your settings in your stories? How does atmosphere add depth and interest to your Work-in-Progress?



  1. Loved these insights! So good. I like the idea of the atmosphere being in contrast with the storyline. It's fun to be surprised when I'm reading...and it makes your story unique as well!

    1. Thanks Lindsay! Glad the insights helped you. I tell you, this book has been a tremendous help for me!!

      Now I only hope it shows in my writing. Lol!

      Thanks for visiting.

  2. Wow, this was a truly great post. I think you should sub a lengthier version of it to Writer's Digest. I have to get the Burroway book--it's been oft recommended, and the quotes you cited are great. Love the painting, too. What peace.

    I have a novel coming out, oh, one of these months and it's the first in a series where the recurring character is the setting--the strange little town (to paraphrase Stephen King) in which it's set. I love seeing location through the prism of many eyes.

    1. Thank you, Jenny! Perhaps I will because I wanted to add so much more. This book is fantastic!

      Location can be so intriguing that it is a character in a book. As you mentioned, Stephen King mastered this. I think Poe did too. The book provides many more examples.

      Good luck with the release of your novel! Keep me posted.

      Thanks for visiting,