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When Setting Comes Alive

Everyone can probably recall a book where the setting came alive for them, when the setting moves beyond words on a page and becomes its own three dimensional character. Old Man and the Sea is the first to jump into my mind.

Recently, I attended a workshop by Erin Quinn where she taught how to bring setting alive through characters. It was one of my favorite classes, possibly because it is an area I have been focusing on lately.

One exercise she demonstrated for us, involved describing a beach. She showed a picture of a beach scene from a balcony. Below the picture was a description of a beautiful beach on the morning of a wedding. Bliss and hope rang through each sentence. The next picture of the same beach had a completely different description below. It haunted us with scavengers and lost chances. It was the exact beach. And while some of the word choices were the same, many of the verbs differed and evoked strong emotion.

As we look through our characters’ eyes, the picture changes. We need to step away from the omniscient point of view and come in closer, bringing life and emotion to our surroundings, to describe the scene as only our character could capture it.

In considering an example, I’m chose the Hunger Games trilogy (because it is currently well known). We learn in book one, from Katniss’s POV how opulent the victors’ homes are. It is something Katniss and her family could never dream of moving into on their own. But when Effie arrives in book two, how would she describe them? If you watch the movie, Catching Fire, the disgust on her face is obvious.

My current work in progress is a rotating third person POV. So I constantly have to ask myself: is this my description (as the omniscient author) or is it how my character would describe it?

Below is a picture of a house. One exercise Erin Quinn had us try was to describe this house from different characters POV. You can use your own characters in your current work in progress or try some of these out: a Russian sleeper spy, a rich reality star, and a homeless man. Watch  your setting evolve, as you evoke emotion through the a character’s point of view.


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  1. I really liked this. The only reason for any descriptive passage is to advance the story. This can be the mechanics of prefiguring that rather unstable statue to drop on the important witness, or revealing the attitudes of the protagonist, or setting up a strange gothic atmosphere. If no description is called for, it can safely be left out – no matter how interesting the place might be in itself.

    Subjective descriptions of a place can be an excellent way to get into the head of a viewpoint character. Someone who looks at a rubbish tip covered in weeds and is delighted with the sight of life springing forth is going to be very different from someone who sneers at the rotten underside of a beautiful mansion.


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