Saturday, January 11, 2014

Narrative Setting: Part Two

Narrative Setting: Part Two


This is part two of a three part series about narrative setting. In part one (Narrative Setting) I talked about what setting is. Today, in part two, I'll go over how setting can be used to develop character. In part three I'll focus on how setting can be used to introduce--and increase--conflict.

Before I talk about setting and character, let me tie up a loose end from my Narrative Setting post and talk briefly about how setting can affect the mood of a story.

Setting And Mood

"Mood creates an emotional setting that envelops the reader." 

The key point here is that mood is something that is created in the reader. (Tone, on the other hand, has to do with the voice of the narrator.) Recall that since our goal in telling a story is to evoke certain emotions in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is important.

I'll be talking a bit more about mood in my third post when I discuss examples.

All right! On to the topic of todays blog post: how a good setting helps us develop our characters' character.

Ways In Which Setting Can Be Used To Develop Character


1. Setting is essential to bring the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing.

2. Setting is essential for situating the character in--not just surroundings--but a society, a culture.

3. The setting of a story can be used to introduce, and increase, conflict.
Let's take these point by point.

1. Setting is essential to bring the world of the story to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing.


The following is from Dwight V. Swain's excellent book, "Techniques of the Selling Writer":
"... How do you bring a setting to life?

"The answer, of course, lies in the human animal himself. His world is a sensory world—a world of green grass and white houses . . . purring kittens and thundering trucks . . . Chanel No. 5 and curling wood smoke . . . fresh cold orange juice and hot crisp bacon . . . silk’s rich smoothness and the harsh grit of volcanic ash.

"So, you build your story world of these same sensory impressions—the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted. Emphasis is on the vivid image and the impactful figure of speech."
A trick I sometimes use--I suppose it's not really a trick, more like a practise or a habit--is to keep lists of sensory words close at hand and review them periodically. 

Also, if I come across a particularly vivid turn of phrase--for instance, "curling wood smoke"--I write it down. And, as I write, I say it aloud. Picture it. For me, "curling wood smoke," that phrase, gives a certain feeling, it conveys a certain mood. It invokes memories of campfires and long warm nights up at my parents' place. Think how you could describe something else and invoke the same, or a similar, memory/feeling.

Here are a few links to lists of words that evoke the senses:

Smell

Taste

Sound

Touch

Sight

All

Misc

2. Developing a milieu is essential for situating the character in--not just surroundings--but a society, a culture.


I talked a bit about this last time. This advice is from Dwight V. Swain and appears in his book "Creating Characters." He writes:
"Milieu is a word I like. Because while, technically, it’s defined as environment or surroundings, it implies a great deal more.

"Specifically, it captures the feeling not just of setting or landscape, but of a society; a social as well as a physical locale. Growing up in San Francisco implies more than just the Golden Gate, Pacific Park, and Union Square. Life in the Mississippi Delta is one thing; that in a Pennsylvania Amish community, another. And double that in spades for a past in the slums of Juarez, the singles bars of New York’s Upper West Side, or a French convent.

"Such social settings reach out to embrace people as well as geography. They mold the various strata of society that fix standards, for mutually accepted norms and rules are the glue that bonds any group or class together. Shared customs, which clothes are acceptable for which occasions, and how to behave in church or mosque or synagogue are what create a society."
Dwight V. Swain continues on to say that writers must know at least these two things regarding a character in a society:

1. "[...] know the rules and conduct patterns that govern behavior in that particular setting;"

2. "[...] know the degree to which Character follows these rules;"

This presents the writer with three questions:
a) What are the rules of your particular society (or societies)?

b) Does your character know the rules? (Did he grow up in this society or is he a stranger?)

c) Does your character follow the rules?
That's it! Next time we'll finish off this series by looking at how to use setting to increase conflict. 

Update: Here's the link to Narrative Setting: Part Three.

Stay tuned. Good writing!

Photo credit: "2014-009 - dry folsom" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

2 comments:

  1. This is interesting - thanks! I attended a workshop recently on character development. One of the ten minute writing exercises we did was to treat the setting as a character. It was very illuminating. Once you start, you can't stop.

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    Replies
    1. That's interesting! Just yesterday I came across an article titled "Setting As Character." I wonder if Donald Maass says something about that in one of his books. Thanks for mentioning the exercise. :)

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