If a detective snooped through your residence while you were away, chances are he or she could construct a fairly detailed and reliable profile of your personality, based on your environment (your setting). That’s because your character is revealed not only by what you say and do, but also by the food in your pantry, the clothes in your closet, the artwork on your walls, the knick-knacks lining your mantle, your movie and music collection, the titles filling your bookshelves, and so forth.
As writers we can use the specific setting in which we place a scene to show the inner workings of our fictional characters. An effective way to do this is to describe setting subjectively through the character’s senses, emotions and memories, rather than neutrally, through a “camera lens” of objective narration. This technique accomplishes a few things:
1. It keeps the writer invisible. The information arrives through the character’s perceptions, not from a disembodied narrator.
2. It saves time and thus moves the story faster. Readers get necessary descriptions of your character’s surroundings while simultaneously learning about their personalities.
3. It’s a handy way to weave in backstory, without resorting to flashbacks elsewhere that can break up the immediacy of the action and dialog.
You can show contrasting personalities and reveal backstories by having more than one character react to the same environment, or to the same object within it. For example, a time-worn baseball glove might evoke nostalgia in an old man, who as a gifted pitcher once made it as far as the minor leagues; while the same glove elicits anger in his adult son, who resents that his father forced him to endlessly practice pitching in the hope the boy would fulfill the father’s dreams and one day pitch for a major league team.
A further use of setting is to establish the mood or tone of your overall story or of a particular scene. Notice how movie directors often open a scene with an “establishing shot” to set up the context and mood for the action that is about to occur. Films must accomplish this while relying on only two senses, vision and sound. The beauty of a written story is that you can convey the setting and mood of a scene through all five senses. Make it a habit to exploit this advantage by including more than just seeing and hearing in your scenes. Give your reader plenty of smells, textures, and flavors. (Also, notice that verbs can perform double-duty as sounds: the bullet chunked into the wall… the arrow thwacked the target.)
Pay special attention to the sense of smell. Neuroscience confirms what you may have discovered in your own experience: aromas trigger memories and emotions more strongly than any of the other senses. It’s easy to imagine a character going through the personal belongings of her late grandfather, feeling a mix of happiness and sorrow when looking at photos of the grizzled man in his wide-brimmed fishing hat. But when she actually smells his faithful hat—its familiar mix of cigarette smoke, hair oil, and a hint of fishing bait—that’s when the tears finally flow.
The more vividly you convey the setting of each scene, the better chance you have of accomplishing the writer’s goal of implanting your readers inside your story. On the other hand, some settings are so familiar (for example, the interior of a MacDonald’s restaurant) that description should be kept to a minimum. Set the stage with just a couple details that readers will instantly recognize.
Even if you’re writing historical fiction or placing a scene in an exotic locale, it’s best not to slow down the story with pages of description. Instead, interweave bits of description into the forward-moving action. Think of particulars (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, flavors, and textures) that exactly define the setting. These are called “telling details”.
Forty years ago I stood in freezing air-conditioning under banks of surgical lamps in the cadaver dissection room of a medical school. A dozen aluminum exam tables held male and female corpses draped to their chests in blue plastic sheets, the right sides of their necks and faces cut down to the white bones. The sharp reek of formaldehyde filled my nostrils and mouth.
If I used the above setting in a fictional scene, I would insert these telling details into the dialog and action a piece at a time to paint a clear picture without slowing the story’s momentum.