“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” ~Eudora Welty
Much as setting skimmers would love for us to move on, mastering setting is paramount to good story telling. Getting the most out of when and where our story takes place means getting the most out of our characters.
On the stage, setting a visual scene is easy. Sound and touch can also be covered for the actor with sound effects and different textures (wood, fabric, furniture, etc.) on the set. But communicating the important setting layers of temperature, smell, and taste falls to the actor.
The actor’s role may call for acting like they’re struggling against the cold, but in truth they’re under hot lights, wearing heavy coats in fake snow, and about to melt. How does an actor remain true to the setting? How do they communicate to the audience they are where they’re pretending to be?
A simple exercise I use with novice actors is muscle memory. I shout out words like hot, cold, freezing, sweltering, humid, etc. Their job is to immediately communicate these commands on their face and with their bodies. After each word, we stop and discuss how their muscles felt. When they’re hot their mouth opens, their head falls back, their shoulders slump. When they’re cold, their muscles become more rigid, their arms pull in tight close to their body, and their jaw tightens. Amazingly, I can mix-up the list and with 99% accuracy they can immediately recreate the exact same expression for each temperature every time I call it out.
No matter the actual temperature on stage, using muscle memory the actor’s body concurs with the story’s setting temperature. Hence, the audience believes the actor is freezing to death in the Arctic even if they can’t see their breath on the stage.
In writing, we are the set designers. Don’t forget to enhance the visual with temperature, smell, and taste. The trick to getting the most out of these setting descriptions is to remember your character’s body. Use a little muscle memory. A character stranded in a snowstorm would carry her body very differently than a character trudging through a desert. A character comfortable in her setting would carry her body differently than one who is not. Using muscle memory, the character’s body concurs with the story’s setting.
Setting controls a character’s body movements, but ironically a sense of setting is also created for the reader simply by the character’s movements.