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Plumb the Emotional Depth of Your Setting

photo adapted / Horia Varlan
photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Many writers say that while they’re drafting, they see their story unspool in their minds like a movie. Unless that film is scratch-n-sniff, this suggests the setting will be rooted only in the visual: see the sky, see the pond, see the sheep. To counter this, and further engage the reader, we learn to write with all the senses: the cerulean sky, the decaying scent of the pond, the coarse coats of the sheep.

But you can do even more.

Today I want to look at how you can revise so the details you sprinkle in—that sky, that pond, and those sheep—can contribute to the emotional world of your story. Consider this excerpt, found on page two of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior:

Whoever was in charge of weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job. The pasture pond seemed to reflect more light off its surface than the sky itself had to offer. The sheep huddled close around its shine as if they too had given up on the sun and settled for second best.

These setting details not only ground the story with a sense of place, but reinforce the emotional state of her protagonist, who is coming to grips with the slow death of her marriage.

Kingsolver demonstrates mad setting skills throughout this novel. The Appalachian mountain on which Dellarobia and her family lives plays a central role as scientists arrive in this backwater town to study the way climate change has altered the migration of monarch butterflies, which are wintering over in Tennessee instead of continuing, as always, to Mexico.

Setting should be meaningful in every story, one could argue, but the way this story ties ecological to domestic change offers up so many passages worthy of study that it’s hard, looking back through, to choose one to analyze for this post. I’ll trust my original instinct and share these potent lines from p. 49 that I underlined my first time through.

Dellarobia couldn’t remember a sadder looking November.[1] The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain.[2] After a brief fling with coloration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair.[3] A few maroon bouquets of blackberry leaves still hung on, but the blue asters had gone to white fluff and the world seemed drained.[4] The leafless pear trees in Hester’s yard had lately started trying to bloom again, bizarrely, little pimply outbursts of blossom breaking out on the faces of the trees.[5] Summer’s heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in its turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved.[6] The world of sensible seasons had come undone.[7]

  1. Great use of point-of-view here, since sad Dellarobia is the one perceiving this.
  1. “Early”—change is here. “Unrelenting”—pressures are not likely to let up.
  1. “Brief fling”—exactly what Dellarobia sets out to have as she heads up the hill at the opening of the book, but her lover doesn’t show and she finds the monarchs instead. I love the foreshadowing here, as the great fear is that the monarchs, which we later learn hang from trees in clumps, will not make it through a winter this far north. Also, Dellarobia’s hair is “flame-colored”—just like the monarchs.
  1. This is all about the setting—and the state of her marriage. Dellarobia is trying to hold on, but it is draining her. The brief coloration in the third sentence also refers to her marriage, which has now gone to white fluff.
  1. The comparison to an adolescent personalizes the fact that this opportunistic November blooming will fail. Especially poignant since Dellarobia has two small children, and she worries what will happen to them if big change comes to the mountain and her marriage. It also foreshadows the question of whether change could still be possible for her irascible mother-in-law Hester, who is older. Is it ever too late?
  1. Nothing is as expected. A lovely way of deepening the desire for warmth and comfort.
  1. This personification of the seasons suggests big stakes: the world has come undone, and because Dellarobia was the one to note it—and despite her lack of formal education—she must do something about it. Her investment in problems both environmental and domestic will cause her complications in the story to come.

I hope you’ll agree: that’s one helluva paragraph. Think, for a moment, about the ratio here: I just wrung 281 words of meaning from Kingsolver’s 124 words—words all about setting. That’s pretty good storytelling bang for your publisher’s buck.

Could the author have simply described the temperature and rain and bare branches using colors, textures, and smells? Sure. That would have been enough to engage the reader. But Kingsolver’s emotional language has achieved so much more. She has tied her character’s deep desire and fears to the setting, creating a world that will support the premise of her story in a myriad of subtle ways—and in doing so, she will create a story world that is memorable.

Is every sentence of setting description in your novel packed with this much meaning? If not, what could you do about that? If you want to give this technique a shot, feel free to share some before-and-after sentences from your own work in the comments.


About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.