A few days ago I woke up to a winter wonderland in our front yard. The setting was perfect for curling up beside the fire with a cup of hot chocolate.
We’ve been talking about setting, giving your story a stage that has a well-defined concept. I’m a visual person who has designed several stage sets so I love setting. Giving a character a location and then putting them at odds with this location helps create conflict.
But some readers are “setting skimmers.” They come across a paragraph with birds soaring in a cloudless blue sky over a flower-strewn meadow and they immediately start looking for the next quotation mark. Why? Maybe it’s because our settings don’t offer that conflict a reader craves. But doesn’t adding extra words encourage skimmers not to read? Not if the setting is doled out in short snippets and each snippet has a point.
In The Ladies Auxiliary, a story about a free-spirit that moves into a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community, Tova Mirvis takes a single sentence of stage setting and enhances the story’s conflict.
“Each week, when the last glimpses of sun were fading behind the trees, we looked around our spotless houses, smelled the freshly cooked food, and felt a sense of wonder that once again we had finished in time.”
The author stages the set with sights and smells we can use to mentally build a picture of a quiet, tree-lined suburban street. But behind the doors of those perfect houses, we get the sense that something isn’t right. Why? Because the setting is also sprinkled with conflict. There is a sense of urgency undergirding this slow-paced life. Why did these Jewish housewives have to finish their chores on time? What would have happened to them if they didn’t? Conflict drives the story forward and keeps the reader reading.
When the set pieces are dressed in conflict, even a skimmer must take note.
This is my back yard. Four trees toppled, completely uprooted. Despite the beauty, snow in the South creates all sorts of trouble. Some folks lost their electricity. Some slid off the road. Some are still cleaning up trees snapped like toothpicks. Two different sides to the same setting.
Look at your setting. Highlight how it should be then find a way to make the opposite happen.
P.S. Check out my new blog with Lisa Harris: Inspire. Be Inspired.