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. The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain. After a brief fling with coloration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair. A few maroon bouquets of blackberry leaves still hung on, but the blue asters had gone to white fluff and the world seemed drained. 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. 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. The world of sensible seasons had come undone.