Those familiar with my writing know that vivid settings are important to my storytelling—whether exotic foreign locales (including invented planets), the glorious wilderness, the shimmering world under the waves, or the flavor of downtown streets. I confess I gravitate to the outdoors when possible, and find it boring when scenes and sometimes whole stories are devoted to characters talking in generic rooms. When I’m working with student writers, I “open up the toolbox” of techniques to try in the pursuit of fully textured fiction. I’ve found that setting and landscape are often forgotten in the development of character and conflict, but they can be powerful in establishing the emotional tone of a scene. Witness Shakespeare’s plays that famously use weather and landscape as symbolic mirrors of the human comedy or drama.
“This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.” (MacBeth, Act I Scene 6)
A perfect moment to lull us into relaxation before the horrific events to come.
“It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night.” (Macbeth. ACT II Scene 2)
Most modern humans are more insulated from nature and weather than our ancestors were, and I know people who rarely stick their noses outside. I must confess that when I assign my students outdoor-setting exercises, I’m hoping that they will spend more time outdoors observing and perhaps valuing the natural world. (Okay, off my soapbox now…)
So for those of you who might be game to try a brief writing exercise:
Pick one of the photos in this blog post and pretend it’s the setting for a fictional scene. Write three different brief descriptions of the setting (3-5 sentences), without altering the time of day or weather. If you add people or animals within the setting, they must be the same in each of the three versions. BUT slant the descriptions, picking your adjectives and sentence rhythms so that the three versions evoke three distinctly different moods:
- Joy: How would a happily-in-love person perceive this setting?
- Grief: How would a person who just lost a loved one perceive the same setting?
- Fear: How would a person who feels threatened perceive the same setting?
The trick is to avoid mentioning the Joy, Grief, or Fear, or the character’s thoughts who might be experiencing the emotion. Make the landscape itself emanate that feeling, so the setting is doing two jobs—giving the reader a place to ground the story, while it’s also stirring up an emotional response.
Then please post your descriptions (mentioning which photo you chose) in the Comments section below. I look forward to reading them!