Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My Take on Setting

“Greetings.” The whisper came straight back at me in an echo so quick that I knew I was very near the wall of the cave, then it lost itself, hissing, in the roof.
There was movement there – at first, I thought, only an intensifying of the echo’s whisper, then the rustling grew and grew like the rustling of a woman’s dress, or a curtain stirring in the draught. Something went past my cheek, with a shrill, bloodless cry just on the edge of sound. Another followed, and after them flake after flake of shrill shadow, pouring down from the roof like leaves down a stream of wind, or fish down a fall. It was the bats, disturbed from their lodging in the top of the cave, streaming out now into the daylight valley. They would be pouring out of the low archway like a plume of smoke.

- Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which I read when it came out in the seventies and still re-read every few years. One of the main reasons these books are keepers for me is Stewart’s gift for setting.

When writing setting, I’m always tempted to focus too much on what’s visible. The true art of describing setting is in using as many of the five senses as possible, and I’m trying to get better at that. One of the reasons I chose the above example is that there’s very little use of sight here. 

For me, the magic in this description comes from Stewart’s choice of words. ‘a shrill, bloodless cry.’ ‘flake after flake of shrill shadow.’ ‘like leaves down a stream, or fish down a fall.’ Knowing we are in a cave, we don’t need the author to tell us what’s happening. With the line ‘something went past my cheek’, we immediately think ‘bats’. The visual references given are imagined, not actually seen.

How much setting is too much? For me, it’s too much when it slows down the story. When it starts to read like a grocery list. When I sense that the author is trying too hard. If a character is going from point A to point B, with nothing important happening plot-wise in between, I don’t need to see everything they pass along the way.

It’s interesting how strong characters tend to make for strong description. If a character is well-developed, I tend to see through their eyes and feel like I’m right there, even if the author hasn’t spent a lot of words on setting. What’s important in the setting is what’s important to the character, and that’s all we really need to see.

Here’s a fun writing exercise I once had to do at a workshop. Choose a familiar setting – your backyard, your bedroom, any place you know really well, and describe it from the point of view of a blind character. Does the afternoon sun come in the window, heating a patch on the bed? Is there a transition from pavement to grass? What can you hear? Smell? Try it. The results might surprise you.

Jennie Marsland


  1. I'll admit, I'm terrible at settings. And oddly enough, I like to read books that don't have a lot in the way of setting either ... so maybe that's why I shun them. :)

    But it can be "talking heads" if you don't get something in there to ground the reader ... I always struggle with that part, but I love your reminder of using the other senses to describe it, rather than straight up description. Got to remember to do that!

  2. I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to setting. I always have to remind myself to include enough. My rough drafts tend to suffer from a bad case of talking head syndrome. I go back and add the setting later. But wouldn`t I kill to write like Mary Stewart!

  3. Great post, Jennie. Setting can be used in so many ways to move a story forward, set tone, or portray a character. I especially love books where the setting is a place I don't know, and I live and learn vicariously through the character about that place. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite books, partly because of the setting (the Congo in the 1950's as seen through the eyes of four daughters of a religious missionary).

  4. I need to cut this out and keep it handy whenever I need to describe setting. Great post, Jennie!