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Setting: It's in the Details

Are your details camouflaged?
I've been writing a short story lately and have enjoyed drawing from my own travels as I've developed and described the story's setting. One thing I've been aware of as I've been writing is conveying the beauty of the setting in a unique and meaningful way so that my characters connect to their Place. Additionally, a few recent photo series (such as this one and this one) got my creative-setting-juices flowing and reminded me how a great setting is in the details.

To create those details, I've been thinking heavily on the themes and ideas Place can inspire. My short story relies heavily on a street name and one word in a foreign language to bring about a transformation in my main character. That one detail grows into something rich that defines the entire story, becomes  and connects the main character to her Place in a way that can't be torn asunder. Setting can be powerful that way.

We've all heard the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees," but sometimes it's important to slow down and really look at those individual trees. What kind are they? What lives in them? What treasures can be discovered--physically, emotionally, thematically--in those trees? Is the bark smooth, is it shaggy, is it peeling away? Those very different descriptions can parallel the journey your main character is going through. Peeling bark can hint at a character peeling away an old identity to reveal the new, improved (or not so improved) layer underneath, for example. Making connections like these helps ground your character in her or his Place and creates a character out of the setting, enriching the story as a whole.

I think to Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper as a particularly excellent example of a single detail playing a major thematic role in a story. While a woman lies in confinement, she becomes obsessed with the pattern in the wallpaper, convinced it holds all manner of horrors. The color, the pattern and the smell all "contribute" to her descent into madness. Truly, it is nothing but paper, but the rich way the paper is manipulated turns it into a character, into something with reaching fingers, with prison-bars and the ability to carry themes (early feminism, depression, gothic horror, a critique of 19th century medicine) that help define the story.

Which books do you think effectively used setting as a character, as a thematic device, as a parallel to the character(s)' journey?
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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12 comments:

  1. Out of recent books I have read I would have to say that Daughter of Smoke and Bone really stands out as having a setting that feels as alive as its characters. I have never been to Prague or Marrakesh, but after reading that book I felt like I had!:)

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    1. I love international settings. I've not read DoSaB, but it's on my to-read list for sure!

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  2. Harry Potter. I mean the series wouldn't be what it is without all of the Hogwarts quirks. The school and the grounds are alive and interact with the characters throughout the whole series.The stairs, pictures, walls, trees, etc...and I can't forget to mention the Weasley's car! It saved Harry and Ron from those nasty, creepy spiders! :)

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    1. Definitely Hogwarts! Outside of the magic, the castle itself was the most intriguing reason to want to go there. Rowling did such a great job with her details.

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  3. I love the Yellow Wallpaper! :)

    Ohhh, and when I think of setting I always remember Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. One of my favorite spooky reads! And the Gormenghast series! The castle itself feels like it's got a personality of its own!

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    1. I'm such a wimp when it comes to scary books, lol. But I do love when houses are personified. Makes you wonder about your own house . . .

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  4. I love "The Yellow Wallpaper." I teach it with my students and one year a group of them printed a big yellow mural on the wall. It's awesome...it has the lady creeping out of it and big freaky eyes that are always looking at them. The setting and single elements in that story are great!

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    1. Sounds like an awesome (and deliciously creepy) project. Love it!

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    2. I love reading the layers of that story. One of my favorites. As is Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorn, which by the way is another great example.

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  5. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Blood Red Road, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Graceling all have settings that really stand out to me.

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  6. Bonfire of the Vanities (Wolfe).

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  7. Meant to add that in it, New York City is a character.

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Item Reviewed: Setting: It's in the Details Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook