Remember our old pals Drago, Johnny, and Dr. Cannon? When we last saw them, they were involved in an epic battle for an internship, with a thin veneer of sophistication provided by the china and linen of the restaurant setting. We've focused a lot on each particular character and how to play them off each other for maximum dramatic impact.
Now let's talk about setting.
In fairly large proportion of manuscripts I read -- perhaps as many as half -- setting is under-utilized and overlooked as a tool for creating dramatic impact. We know the scene has to take place somewhere, so we choose a kitchen or an office or a car, and maybe we paint the walls an interesting color because that's what the character might like. Maybe, if we get into it, we add a Viking stove or a corner-window view or whitewall tires. Neat. Now the setting is coming alive, right?
Eh, maybe a little.
It's a start, a solid base hit, but it doesn't get you all the way home. It's good to present physical details of the world in a way that grounds and orients the reader.
But it's better to present them in a way that grounds and orients the reader AND adds a new layer to the conflict and action.
When we first introduced Drago to Johnny, we did so in a restaurant. I provided the following setting description:
The lunch is at a white-tablecloth place. Hushed music. Heavy silverware. Well-trained waiters.
In the list of questions at the end of that exercise, I posted:
How does the environment impact their interaction? What does it highlight about their interpersonal conflict? What do they order for their meals, and why?
This question was meant to start you thinking about the impact of setting on character and conflict. Most of you understood right away that Johnny (the status-seeker) would feel at ease in this setting, but Drago (the survivor) would not. And most of you saw how Johnny would leverage that disparity to make himself look better. So already, we have a basic, big-picture understanding of how to use setting to highlight a conflict.
But what about details? This is where Show meets Tell. We can tell each other that Johnny feels comfy and on top of things. But how do we show it in the scene? What does Johnny actually DO that shows his ease? What does Drago DO that shows his unease? What other details come up that can highlight this situation? I asked specifically what they ordered for their meals, and why. (That was a test question, by the way. I was wondering if any of you would look deeper into Drago's background and make the jump to religious dietary restrictions. Epic fail, but I forgive you. *wink* More on this to follow.)
So let's look at an example from the comments. We're going to have two specific questions in mind as we look at this.
1 -- Does the setting detail accurately reflect character?
2 -- Can the conflict be exaggerated by choosing a different detail?
Johnny knows Drago is unprepared, so he graciously offers to allow him to order before him. Drago doesn't want to fumble looking at the menu, so he says that he'll have the same as the Dr. When the waiter turns on Johnny, instead of ordering right away, Johnny asks the waiter how he is? The waiter is noticeably put at ease and is pleased that he's been acknowledged. Then Johnny orders his lunch. It's very precise, although it's a switched up version of something they have on their menu and will need to be changed - it's not so outrageous a demand that anyone would balk at it.
We have three interesting details here. Let's break them down in order.
1 - Johnny defers to Drago.
This isn't really a setting detail (it's an action choice), but it's worth discussing as an aspect of character. Usually, alphas eat first. Johnny is a status seeker, so we would normally expect Johnny to want to order ahead of Drago. The fact that he deferred -- and especially, that he deferred so that Drago would look bad -- shows a secondary characteristic. Johnny is cunning and a bit manipulative here. He gets to look like he's being polite (enhance his self) while simultaneously exposing Drago's unpreparedness (diminish his opponent). For a guy who goes through life ranking everything and everyone around him, this was a very interesting and appropriate move. (Note: Drago fumbles with the menu -- a character interacting with setting in a way that reveals the character's inner state. Would this be better if the menu was on a chalkboard? What if the waiter presented the day's specials in
French? Do these things enhance the conflicts, or detract from them? What if Drago had insisted that Johnny order next?)
2 - Johnny asks the waiter, "How are you?"
The waiter is part of the setting, so this qualifies as a setting detail. This is a salesman's move. Ordinarily, a status-seeker would treat the staff as invisible, right up to the moment he requires something, at which point he'll be evaluating the quality of service. But a salesman tries to put the entire world around him at ease as a way of eliminating objections in advance of his pitch. I'm not sure this detail perfectly gels with Johnny's character, but the scene could be worked in a way to overcome my hesitation. (Note: What does the waiter look like? Does it make a difference if he's smoothly handsome or dumpy and doughy? Can you dress him in a way that says something about the conflicts?)
3- Johnny orders a heavily modified version of a menu item.
Nice. The menu is part of the setting, so this definitely shows the character interacting with setting. What kind of person orders off the menu? Maybe two rough groups -- the supremely health conscious, and the supremely confident. In either case, this works to Johnny's advantage. Given that the doctor has already ordered a heavily modified version of a menu item (presumably to make it healthier), Johnny would understand implicitly that by behaving in the same manner, he creates an equation between himself and the doctor. Drago, who ordered the same thing the doctor ordered, may have hoped for a similar type of equality. But instead, he is reduced to imitator. This is a really good example of character interacting with setting to demonstrate subtle things about those characters and conflicts. (Note: What if Johnny ignored the menu altogether? What if, as Drago fumbled with it, he left it lying unread on his place setting?)
Because we weren't seeing a lot of concrete examples in the comments of the way the setting might influence the scene, I asked this question:
Drago might not know a fish fork from a salt cellar. Does he try to cover up his ignorance, or does he flaunt it?
My point was to try to make you all get specific and concrete. It's one thing to talk about a setting in the abstract (it's elegant) and another to think about how that abstraction is made manifest through details (fish forks and salt cellars).
I'm willing to bet that by now, at least one of you is wondering how to exploit setting without a block paragraph of description. You know that description is static and that it slows down the pacing. You worry that I'm about to advocate for more setting details -- and you're right. On all counts.
But keep in mind our basic formula for a scene:
Against a Setting.
Motion is what links the characters and the setting. You don't just list a catalogue of details: white linen, white china, thick carpeting, waiters with long linen towels wrapped around their waists. You *show* the characters interacting with those details in a meaningful way. How do you do that? You start by brainstorming physical details about the setting. Then you think about how those details impact the characters as they move through the scene. Then -- and this is the crucial step, perhaps -- you decide whether this is the best possible detail to showcase the conflicts. And if not, you find something better.
Let's do a couple for practice. I'll start. Thick carpeting means that footsteps are muffled. So Dr. Cannon in her swanky high heels -- she clacks along the sidewalk, and then grows silent as they move through the room. Does this help the conflicts? Perhaps. If I can use it to show something about how she's hard to read, her cues are muffled, she seems different outside the hospital setting, etc. Or maybe I want to tap into the stealthy feeling creating by silent motion. Is she stalking her prey? Is she dangerous?
Remember our pov quadrant?
This can come in handy when thinking through setting details. Step outside your current perspective and consider how the detail might look to another character. Silence might sound peaceful to Drago. It might soothe him. (Think of the relief he would feel when the guns stopped firing.) Or he might equate it with death. (Think of how silent his village must have been when everyone in it was dead.)
For Johnny, silence might not be as meaningful. Or is it? Some men associate that clatter of high heels with feminine power. Maybe in Johnny's pov, we could have a sentence like,
They padded behind the maitre d' to their table, the powerful clicking of the doctor's heels neutralized by the plush carpet.
And that might give us a subtle suggestion that Johnny is using the environment detail to brace himself. She is muffled -- they all are -- they are on equal footing now, so to speak.
Here is the point. You can keep the setting detail small. You can braid them into the action. You can let them be subtle. But as long as you control and exploit them, you're going to add another layer of complexity to your scene.
Now. About those religious dietary restrictions. Drago's native country is predominantly Muslim. Who orders pork, and what effect does that have?