When I first started writing, I had no idea how important a well-developed setting was for enabling a reader to imagistically enter into a story and wrap it about them as one would a warm blanket. I knew the importance of characterization and 'hooking' characters into the setting, but not setting itself. I didn't yet view setting as almost a character in its own right.
For example, here's a passage from P.D. James's short, wonderful, book on the writing of detective fiction:
"[...] I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide." (Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James)
Wow. I'm there, I taste the salt, feel the wind, hear the ocean.
Of course I always had known, even if I was unable to articulate it, that the author's description of the setting was a large part of my reading experience, but knowing is one thing and being able to articulate exactly what it is about a piece of prose that causes a location to become so real to one's imagination it seems one is transported there ... well, it's difficult. I've become better at it lately, but it has not been easy.
|Still from the first episode of Sherlock, season three: The Empty Hearse.|
Weaving Setting Into Narrative
To recap. The problem is that a storyteller must describe setting even though doing so will slow the pace; and slowing the pace isn't the best thing to do at the beginning of a story when we're trying to hook a reader's interest.
Deborah Chester puts it this way: "Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on 'pause' while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important."
Here are DC's two solutions to this problem:
1. The Dominant Impression
"Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph."
I looked around for an example of this and finally chose the following. It doesn't describe a physical characteristic, but it does describe an aspect of character:
"I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, 'Are you all right?' I can't answer no. I can't say help me." (Bag of Bones, Stephen King)
2. Deborah Chester's Method
DC says the following is effective in fantasy, but I think it generalizes to other genres.
a. Tell "readers where they are--for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan."
b. Plunge "the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril" and present "the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale."
Why this works:
"The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner." DC comments that this method of introducing setting is "quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.
DC recommends "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers as a book with examples of this technique.
Question: How do you communicate a sense of place quickly and effectively?
Photo credit: "Sunrise under scrutiny" by Loco Steve under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.