Confession time. How often do you skip the descriptions in a novel so you can get to the action of the story? I’ve done it. I like a fast-paced read and get impatient when I run into a description of the countryside or of a character’s personal space. I can hear myself grousing to the author to just get on with it already, but that’s not really fair to the author or to the reading experience.
Every element in fiction does double duty. It must perform its basic function as well as add depth to the story and contribute to its overall flow. The best writers incorporate the nuances of all the elements to create a seamless narrative where no thought is wasted. Every word has purpose, and every scene has significance. Even the ones that describe setting.
Classic author Charlotte Bronte accomplishes this within the first chapter of her novel Jane Eyre. Readers get a symbolic glimpse of young Jane’s present and future circumstances through a description of the view outside the window-seat nook where she finds solace. Jane notes: “At intervals, while turning over the leaves in my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.”
The view from the window mirrors Jane’s reality. The distant future is as unclear to this lonely girl as the landscape outside, revealing only “a pale blank of mist and cloud.” Misunderstood and abused, Jane sees herself as “storm-beat” as the tiny shrub, being swept wildly by the cruelty and indifference of the family in whose care she’s been placed. Bronte’s use of setting gives the reader more than a weather report; it offers insight into the character and her conflict.
Richard Connell uses setting to reveal mood in his short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” After finding himself washed up on a mysterious island, main character Sanger Rainsford stumbles upon a mansion in the middle of the jungle. He seeks refuge in this “lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.” The reader understands that danger lurks here. The words plunging and gloom offer a clear indication that this is not the typical island getaway. Add to that the dark description of the greedy sea and ominous shadows, and you have a setting that attunes the reader for the maniacal game played on this secret island. Here, the setting impacts mood and creates suspense for the reader.
Contemporary author Davis Bunn utilizes setting in his novel The Lazarus Trap to emphasize his main character’s conflict. As Val Haines trudges through the streets of New York City, he notes that “the clouds were too lazy to hang in the sky on their own. Instead, they leaned upon the highest towers, compressing the city even more densely. There was no open space in any direction. No horizon upon which he could focus and find respite.” Robbed of his job, his family, and life as he knew it, Haines must find the strength to move forward, but the weight of his loss presses down on him. Trapped in a no-win situation, his outlook is bleak. The clouds hover as close as his regret, and his despair threatens to suffocate him. He sees no way out, no horizon where he can escape. Because Bunn paints such a vivid picture of Haines’ situation, readers get to do more than simply watch the struggle; we get to experience it along with the character. We become part of the story.
Setting often plays an integral part in a story. Readers who pay attention can uncover all kinds of secrets playing in the shadows, hiding in the fog, or just simply blowing in the wind. Which of your favorite stories had the most intriguing setting? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.