In a long list of basic essentials we cover in our introductory fiction writing course, Fiction Elements (also now available online), is setting and description. It's funny how students always put it last on their list of "what I need to know". We talk about theme, and how, if you start a story with a strong theme or moral you want to impart, it can often affect the story and make it seem pedantic or preachy. We talk about character and dialogue and plot - in fact, we've made plot into a whole new subject called Story Structure. But setting and description?
One of the common reactions is "nobody does that anymore". Meaning that the days of opening a novel with six pages of description, a la 19th century fiction, is long gone. We're told that readers today are impatient with too much description, and because we all watch so much TV and so many movies, that description only needs minimal space in a contemporary novel - let the reader imagine the rest. We're told about info dumps, meaning that more than six lines of description at a time is considered overkill and today's reader will skip it.
That may all be true - to a degree. But what I often find, in reading students' writing, is that they ignore setting and description at their peril. Whether it's a fantasy novel, a horror novel, a literary story set in an artist's studio, or a comic novel set in New York - the first thing a reader is going to look for is how real the world of the story is. Tell me a scene takes place on the corner of 12th Street and 27th Street in New York, I'm going to wonder what else you got wrong. Tell me the main character is inspecting her ankles, feet and toes, and then tell me she discovers she has turned into a tiger, I'm going to wonder what that writer is visualising, because it doesn't make sense to me.
At the Pima Writer's Workshop last year, one of the guest speakers talked at length about what happens when you visit a location in your novel. Suddenly, details come to life, and you notice the kinds of things you wouldn't think of putting in the story if you were guessing, or making it up from seeing a couple of movies. Smells. Tastes. The kid in the corner of the restaurant flicking ice cream at his mother. The fox that put its head up above the fern. The drunk man who walked into a lamp post and burst into hysterical laughter.
I'm not saying you can't imagine all this stuff and put it in your story. Of course you can. But first you have to realise that it needs to be there. What Michael Connolly calls 'the telling detail' is vital to helping your reader visualise your fictional world, not any old world that's been done to death in a hundred fantasy novels or chicklit novels or stories about going home again. Your world, as much as your characters, is what draws the reader in, making them believe for the time they are between the pages, that this world exists somewhere else and is real. That requires work, research and imagination. Here are some quick examples:
"The sun was hanging on a string just over the horizon, pink and lurid, and the tourists were busy packing up their sunblock and towels and paperback novels while the dark people, the ones who lived here year-round and didn't know what a vacation was, began to drift out of the trees with their children and their dogs to reclaim their turf." Mexico - T.C. Boyle (from After The Plague)
"The Saturday morning we went to pick up the china it felt almost as if we were going to a wedding. Watches were checked and the house carefully locked as if we would be away for a long time. My father drove us into town and parked in the loading dock at David Jones. With the help of a storeman, he loaded the box of china into the boot. My mother watched their every move. Back home, she held the front door open for my father while he carried the china over the threshold." China - Margaret Innes (from Love and Desire)
"She stood on the harbour in the freezing cold, mask in her hand, her breath white in the air, and shivered while Dundas hosed her down. She'd been back to recover the hand with the limb kit, the dive was over and this was the bit she hated, the shock of coming out of the water, the shock of being back with the sounds and the light and the people - and the air, like a slap in the face. It made her teeth chatter. And the harbour was dismal even though it was spring. The rain had stopped and now the weak afternoon sun picked out windows, the spiky cranes in the Great Western Dock opposite, oily rainbows floating on the water." Ritual - Mo Hayder
Probably none of these excerpts are ones you'd point to and say, "Wow, how amazing". But my point is that I opened each of these stories and easily picked out a bit to use as an example. I could have used a number of other excerpts - each of these writers created a fictional world that worked, detail by detail, to engage and draw me into the story. Where setting and character interact, you will get an even stronger effect. Something to look for next time you read?