By Shann Fountain Culo
I suppose it’s my background as a travel writer but I love settings. I’ve also been known to love a movie mostly for its setting; films like Out of Africa, The Lover, and Children of Heaven are three that automatically come to mind. Done well, a setting can add to a story or a film, in addition to serving the purpose of grounding the reader in the story.
But without film or the luxury of nineteenth century writers to ramble for paragraphs about our setting, how do we convey a sense of place economically?
Travel writing has taught me a lot about techniques to convey a lot of feeling in a few words. Most of my assignments are short 150- to 200-word pieces where I have to describe a location, tell why the reader should go there, where they should have lunch, dinner, and stay the night, and give pertinent information (websites, phone numbers, names). I’d better be short.
When describing settings it’s important to use details a reader can resonate with. Most people haven’t lived in Mongolia but a boiling kettle over hot stones, dusty roads, and horses are all details your readers will relate to. Then you can add in a detail they don’t, like Airag, the national drink of Mongolia, describing its bitter, acrid taste.
It’s best to use a quick checklist of the senses when describing your setting. You don’t have to employ all of them, but maybe you never use taste or smell, for instance. Particularly useful are adjectives that employ a sense combined with an attribute like chocolate-box, gingerbread, sleepy, or buzzing.
Try using fresh methods for describing colors. We’ve all heard beet red or fire-engine red, but what about tin-roof red or crazy red. In one of the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling describes green eyes as the color of “fresh pickled toad.” Amazing, I think. She not only uses an unexpected metaphor but one that adds to the character and theme of her book.
Using sound adjectives is helpful as well. We’ve all heard ‘the party was hopping’ but think about other sounds to describe a lively get-together. What about the vodka splashing against ice, the swish of a dancer’s hips, or the crackle of a stereo?
Foreign words can be tricky to use but quite effective under the right circumstances. An easy way to use them without being pretentious or confusing is to employ familiar words or words that can not be mistaken for their meaning by the average English-speaking reader. French words like fatale or succès or Italian words like bella or conforti come to mind.
Last but not least is to remember to use setting precisely and usually, sparingly. Exceptions to these rules would be when setting is integral to the plot (a terrible storm conceals a murder), the setting is important to reveal character, or the setting is a character itself.
Wherever you set your scene, have a journalist’s perception of the place. How would you describe it? What strikes you first? If you can see it in your mind, it’s likely the reader will as well.