Cuts Like Broken Glass: Using Setting

Ashtray I

You mean you don’t evaluate all your surroundings based on the damage they could cause? Huh. (Photo credit: Domiriel)

Setting too often gets overlooked in discussions about writing. Plot and character get all the attention and the money and the women/men/transsexuals/others. Maybe because it’s hard to get excited about setting in the same way. It’s easier to tell people about this amazing character you’ve created, who is both a hobo* and a superhero, and rescues lost kittens and must drink the souls of the living to survive. The sewage outflow where he lives, on the other hand…

But setting can be powerful, so why give it half measure? Writing’s all about fighting the reader’s apathy, and if you’re not going to use every tool at your disposal, you’re probably going to lose. Think of setting as the glass ashtray in a bad bar fight: not the most obvious choice of weapon, but, goddamn, can it do some damage if you use it right.

And that’s the key: using it right. I’ve read books with exhaustive setting detail—a common sign that the writer was afflicted with World-Builder’s Disease—that actually made me skip past pages to get back to the story. And I’ve read others where everything might as well have been happening in the fucking white void I do all my rough sketches in when I can’t be arsed to draw a background. And, much like those drawings, the book feels lazy. Feels like the author couldn’t be arsed to write a setting.

The trick, in my utterly biased opinion, is to tie setting to emotion and plot. Not that obvious B-movie shit**, where fog mysteriously springs up whenever something bad is about to happen, or it rains when someone is depressed. Again, lazy. But spaces reflect the character’s feelings about both the plot events that have taken place there and the way they fit—or don’t—within those walls. A bright, spacious apartment that invokes feelings of rage because it was where the character’s ex-husband beat her so badly she had to paint the walls to cover the bloodstains so she could get the damage deposit back when she moved. The corner office that feels uncomfortably big, like when the new owner of it used to put on his now-deceased father’s coats as a kid. The rough, dingy backstreet bar, full of bikers and petty criminals and people that you don’t look at too hard, that feels like a haven because it’s one of only two places in the city she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else.

Use it right, and setting gives you that broken glass edge, the one that cuts deep into your reader and makes them bleed for those characters. And, let’s face it, writers love to make people bleed.

*Does anyone use this word anymore? I just realized I haven’t heard it in some time except in my own head. Usually with The Littlest Hobo song playing in the background. Annnd now that’s in my head for the next week. Well done, brain.
**Not that I don’t love B-movies for their own somewhat dubious charms. But the overuse of the fog machine is not one of them.

3 thoughts on “Cuts Like Broken Glass: Using Setting

  1. “hobo* and a superhero” = Hancock?

    🙂 This post is great. I agree that it’s easy to overlook setting! Thanks Steph, you’ve done it again.

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