Part 3 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
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There is a kind of belief among my students that things that are true are interesting. But most things that are true are not interesting. Four pages describing how I got up and brushed my teeth in the morning would kill you. - Alistair MacLeod
As a writer, your job when opening a story is to hook and then immerse your reader into the story world. So, it's important to understand that when a reader reads a story, they should hear the voice of The Story's Narrator.
It doesn't matter if the Narrating Voice is that of the author, an omniscient God On High, the Fly-on-the-Wall, a Storyteller, or one of the primary characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, or Romantic Lead, etc.). What matters is that the voice be highly opinionated and have a distinct diction, vocabulary, and syntax and be different from every other character in the story.
It is especially important when a character narrates that their voice reflects their POV (Point of View) and Viewpoint, which is their unique personality and biases in how they view the situation (even the setting details) thus heightening, reinforcing, or even changing how they feel emotionally about what's going on.
To achieve the best narrative, a writer uses fiction techniques of personification, metaphors, similes, and pathetic fallacy. (Pathetic fallacy is the assigning of human feelings and responses to non-living things or animals, even the weather.)
Of course, while witnessing or perceiving his or her environment, the scene, or the situation, The Story's Narrator will be judgmental, open- or closed-minded, ethical or unethical, biased, perhaps bigoted, and show their personal prejudices.
So, how does this affect setting? Answer: It's in the details.
You see, that POV-Viewpoint Story Narrator should not catalog a room's layout from left to right or right to left, or even stop to give an information dump about the setting. Instead, some sensory perception will attract the immediate attention of the narrator and that item is called the "dominant impression" of a room, landscape, or whatever the setting happens to be.
Topping the list of attention factors for a dominant impression is light.
Lighting has to do with what can be seen or what cannot be seen. So, what is the setting's lighting like? Brilliant, blinding sunlight that forces the heroine to shade her eyes? Or is it the darkness or shadows that hides a mouse, a person, an object, a vampire, a stalker, etc.?
Think of lighting as the difference between walking into Notre Dame Cathedral and walking into your local mall. Both are enormous buildings, but the way the light and sounds echo are very different and affect how you and your reader feels emotionally (happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.).
Next on the list of sensory impressions that dominate is smell. What does the narrator immediately smell? Is it sweet, tangy, sour, pleasant, or foul? Why that particular smell over other smells in the setting?
Take for example the Protagonist entering an old house. The first thing that strikes him is the scent of lemon furniture polish coming from an antique Queen Anne sideboard. The smell draws up warm memories of his grandmother's home and her lemon-scented furniture. He has a good feeling about being in that house and will carry that good feeling into his meeting with the person he came to see.
But say the Protagonist enters his brother-in-law's garage and inhales fumes from the riding lawn mower that's idling. Instead of standing and cataloging what else is in the garage, the Protagonist mutters something about his brother being inept and heads for the machine to turn it off. En route, he must step over a haphazardly coiled, mud-streaked water hose and trip, smack his shin on the lawn tractor's torque bar-hitch, then cuss, and perhaps dance a little jig to sidestep an open, three-tiered, tool box where tools are scattered about on the floor.
Now you have a character in motion, in action, in an interesting setting, and doing something important. And that character has a goal, which is to get to the machine to turn it off because it's a safety hazard.
Note that only a few items were used to give the impression of a cluttered garage. The scenario by the POV-Viewpoint narrator has been chronological, moment-by-moment, and in a cause-and-effect sequence. This garage setting also has been presented in a far more interesting way than from left to right and right to left.
Better yet, and based on what has been revealed (shown), the reader makes a judgement about the brother-in-law's character— i.e., because he's careless about leaving the lawn-mower running, what else will he be careless about and what danger will such behavior put the Protagonist in?
Next might be sound. What is the exact sound? Is it the creak of floorboards or the crack of frozen wood decking being walked on? Is it the splash of a dog through a puddle of water? Or is it the sound of silence that either reassures or terrifies?
Next is taste. Using similes and metaphors helps the reader "taste" the poison, or blood, or salty-sea air, and can help distinguish between liquors like whisky and a margarita. The idea is to help the reader experience the taste, which brings the props in a setting to life for the reader.
As to touch? It can as light as cobwebs or the sting of a viper. It could also be the blast of an inferno's heat or a blizzard's wind-whipped, pelting snow. So, what does the POV-Viewpoint narrator feel or how do they react?
As you can see, sensory perceptions help define a setting, but the real impact comes from the reaction of The Story's Narrator. That's why it's important to let the narrator notice only dominant setting details that are important to the on-going action and not stop the story's forward movement to dump in details.
Equally important is that any dominant detail used will cause a reaction, a memory, or evoke an opinion from the narrator. That, in turn, affects the reader or guides the reader in drawing the conclusion the writer intended.
So, to create mood and tone and to breathe more life into the setting and story, show through the POV-Viewpoint narrator. Reveal more, tell less, and blend setting details with the action.
Next Month — April — World Building, Society Norms
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