I’ve frequently heard that writers are supposed to “show instead of tell,” but that isn’t always easy to do. When it comes to settings, I think it can be especially hard.
Setting is more than a location or time period. Among other things, it provides a frame of reference for readers, affects the tone, supports a theme, and adds to characterization. It can also detract from those aspects of a story if the setting isn’t appropriate or memorable.
Sometimes pictures speak louder than words, but unless we’re writing a picture book we must depend on words to convey our meaning. Long narratives describing the setting can be overwhelming and boring, and many people skim over those kinds of passages (me, too!). It can be more effective and interesting to integrate specific, important details of the setting into the story itself, allowing readers to imagine the big picture.
To illustrate my point, I’ve included a few photos from my recent vacation. With each, I’ve added a basic caption regarding the setting; underneath I’ve mentioned why the picture is memorable to me. I hope those comments will help you get a feel for the setting where each one occurred. (Plus this gives me a chance to share a few of my favorite vacation photos without violating my blog’s writing-related theme. 🙂 )
Thousands of flowers blended with fountains, birds, and storybook characters in a fantastic panorama at the Bellagio hotel.
The lights at night made even conservative structures like the Bally hotel appear amazing, while turning the beautiful ones into spectacles that took my breath away.
This decorated chicken breast resting on a few pieces of asparagus was the main course in the most expensive meal I ever ate.
I never expected to see palm trees lining the roads while mountains loomed in the distance. Nothing at all like rural Indiana.
Here’s one where the setting wasn’t important; it was the people I was with that made this one memorable.
I don’t even remember exactly where we were, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep plodding along. Getting a picture taken with my daughter gave me a welcome break without having to whine that I was tired!
For more information on setting, I recommend these sites:
My post from 4/13/10 on the importance of setting.
Setting Is More Than Mere Time And Place An article on setting. The site also covers many other writing-related topics.
Setting: Writing a Story With Atmosphere This article discusses setting in some depth. It also contains lots of helpful tips on writing novels.
Do you focus on the setting as much as you do the plot and characterization? Is setting important in nonfiction? What details do you like to know about the setting when you’re reading a book? Have you gone anywhere interesting on vacation this year?