Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Emotional Side of Setting

Tweet It!
Bookmark and Share

by C. Patrick Schulze 
Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

There is more to a novel's setting than just the when and where of your story. It includes the entire environment in which your CHARACTERS find themselves and the full circumstance under which they suffer. Setting has a great many characteristics to it but one aspect aspiring authors often miss is the emotional side of SETTING.

Consider this. Might your character's anger change the mood of your story? It certainly could if he, say, lashed out and killed someone. The secret to setting then, is to involve your characters' full environment, including their emotions. Does your story take place in the fall of the year? Then not only should you have leaves on the ground and winds that blow, but you may also wish to incorporate your character's feelings toward the season.

Envision how your character's emotions can enhance the setting of your novel. Might her dark mood after the fight with her husband carry into the crowed grocery store? Would it affect the way she cheers at her daughter's soccer game? Might it build into road rage during rush hour? Indeed, her emotions can alter the setting in a huge fashion.

One great technique used to bring setting to life is to have characters, and their emotions, alter the setting. "She shattered the glass against the hearth." Powerful stuff, guys.

Here's another compelling technique with which to draw your readers into your setting. Have it come in conflict with your character. Here's an example. "Frightened as never before, he leaned as if into a powerful wind and advanced amid the hail of bullets." Whoa! Now that's in conflict with your environment!

Another effective method to show how emotions can affect your setting is to employ similes and metaphors. "His anger built like a river held in check by a dam." Can you see how the setting will be impacted when his emotional dam breaks?

Have you ever established your setting with the weather? Might your characters' emotional mood also have the same effect on setting? Sure can.

As you weave setting into your story, don't ignore the emotional side of setting. It'll give you a much more powerful story.

Now, here are some general tips for setting.

Imply rather than reveal. There's no need to tell the reader it's fall if the dry leaves on the ground crinkle under your character's feet.

Sprinkle your setting throughout your novel. Ergo, avoid the proverbial info dump.

Introduce your setting by way of your characters' action. It might go something like this: "He gazed over the rolling countryside..."

Include all the senses. Have your characters smell the honeysuckle, taste the pepper and relish the sound of night cicadas.

Have the details of your setting coincide with the length of your story. The shorter your story, the less setting you need to introduce.

Be specific. England is too general a setting. London on Bleaker Street is not. It's not a plant, it's a mandevilla with an explosion of brilliant pink petals.

Details do it. Add the tiniest of details to enhance your setting. Which of the following sentences produces the better picture?

"He swung the ax again."

"He swung the ax again and a shower of fragrant wood chips mushroomed out and fell to the ground."

Consider if your setting might foreshadow upcoming events.

Ensure your setting moves in time with your characters. For example, you might have your character's hair turn gray as the story progresses over the years.

Slang is a wonderful tool to establish setting. For example, during the American Civil War, bullets equated to "dead men" and what we call land-mines, they called "infernal machines."

Setting expands beyond your characters' environs. How might a world-wide financial collapse affect your character?

And then, of course, there is the ever-classic adage, "Show. Don't tell."

"He put on his uniform"

"He stepped into his trousers, buttoned the fly and waistband, then slipped the suspenders over his shoulders."

Setting, my friends, is as important as any aspect of your novel and the emotional side of setting is as important as any other aspect of the literary device we call setting.

Thanks for your time and know I wish for your only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. How do you do it? Always great posts! I love your examples of sentences expanded from stark and plain, to detailed and rich. Your piece of advice to have your investment in setting mirror the length of your story is a terrific point, as well. You know where I'm headed, right? Linking for tomorrow? Thanks so much!


  2. C. Patrick SchulzeJune 18, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    I'm so glad you enjoy my work, Marissa. I also greatly appreciate the links.