The Setting is a Stage

Setting isn’t simply a backdrop to the story, it’s a space that the characters exist in and should move around. People are rarely still so characters shouldn’t be standing around with their hands in their pockets. Moving them around the scene offers opportunities to express character and character interactions, show more of the setting, and break up dialogue.

One point where this can be particularly useful is in conversation scenes where it can be very easy to simply have lines of dialogue with little to break them up. However, if we use our setting then we can not only break up the dialogue but we can show who’s speaking, imply relationships between the characters and suggest their mood. For instance, two characters may be having an argument while sitting on a settee and in frustration one gets up and crosses to the other side of the room to lean against the fireplace, suggesting they want to distance themselves from the conflict and the person they’re arguing with. It also tells us that the room has a settee which is on the opposite side of the room to the fireplace without us having to have a character enter a room and tell us that there’s a fireplace opposite the settee.

We might go further and there’s something significant on the mantelpiece. The characters might be a couple arguing over their child so character A crosses the room to the fireplace where they see the centre stage picture of the child, pick it up and look at it. They might then put the photograph down and their attitude to the argument changes based upon their reaction to the picture. It could be that looking at the picture makes them think about the child and decide character B has a point and A is the one being unreasonable. In moving the character around the setting we’ve located three things in the space, expressed emotion and given the argument an unspoken turning point.

We can also use the setting to imply motion in instances such as characters walking down a corridor. We could have the prose say ‘they walked down the corridor’ which is neither better nor worse than any other method. Or we might decide we want the walk down the corridor to last a little longer. We could mention passing the hall table with a vase on, stepping on a wet patch where something has been spilled, lingering at the bottom of the stairs with a hand on the banister. So there’s stairs at the end of the corridor and our character doesn’t want to go up them? I wonder why. In dropping a few details we’ve moved our character hesitantly along a corridor towards their goal and the reader might infer that goal frightens the character or makes them nervous without the character saying ‘I was scared’ or ‘I was nervous’.

Now this isn’t something you have to do but it can be worth a try and there’s nothing wrong with telling the reader how the character feels. If it does work for you there’s no rule saying you have to do it all the time. Everything in writing is about experimentation and finding your own unique style.

Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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