The other day at Romance University, I posted a few tips on how to incorporate setting details. I thought we might continue the discussion here by looking at a few examples of good portrayals of setting details. If you haven't already read that post, you might want to take a look at it so you have the context for this discussion.
So let's take a look at a sample from "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book is told from the point of view of a butler in one of England's great houses during the world war period. It is, in great part, the butler's attempt to understand his relationship to and character of Lord Darlington, the previous owner of the house. Here's the sample paragraph:
The study doors are those that face one as one comes down the great staircase. There is outside the study today a glass cabinet displaying various of Mr Farraday's ornaments, but throughout Lord Darlington's days, there stood at that spot a bookshelf containing many volumes of encyclopedia, including a complete set of the Britannica. It was a ploy of Lord Darlington's to stand at this shelf studying the spines of the encyclopedias as I came down the staircase, and sometimes, to increase the effect of an accidental meeting, he would actually pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed as I completed my descent. Then, as I passed him, he would say: 'Oh, Stevens, there was something I meant to say to you.' And with that, he would wander back into his study, to all appearances still thoroughly engrossed in the volume held open in his hands. It was invariably embarrassment at what he was about to impart which made Lord Darlington adopt such an approach, and even once the study door was closed behind us, he would often stand by the window and make a show of consulting the encyclopedia throughout our conversation.
Nice paragraph, isn't it? Its primary focus is on a detail of the habitual interaction between Lord Darlington and his butler, and setting details are used to enhance the butler's interpretation of that interaction. Let's break it down.
We start with two sentences of unmixed description of setting details:
The study doors are those that face one as one comes down the great staircase. There is outside the study today a glass cabinet displaying various of Mr Farraday's ornaments, but throughout Lord Darlington's days, there stood at that spot a bookshelf containing many volumes of encyclopedia, including a complete set of the Britannica.
These are slow, deliberate sentences, which is in keeping with the butler's voice and character. The first sentence gives us two setting details in relation to each other -- exactly what we mean when we talk about orientation. This kind of orientation is a powerful tool to bring the reader into the physical space of the book world. It's not just a list of details -- a staircase, a room, doors -- but an explanation of how these pieces relate to one another. This is an effective and concise way to present setting information.
Next, we have a sentence that describes how one setting detail has changed: now a curio cabinet, formerly a bookcase with encyclopedias. Change is the essence of drama, and incorporating change at this small-scale, sentence level is a good technique for creating tension in what otherwise might be a flat bit of description. This contrast between past and present is heightened by including both descriptive details in the same sentence. As an exercise, try breaking apart this sentence to separate past and present. Also try eliminating the curio cabinet. Do you see how that strips some of the impact out of these ideas?
Note also the use of three details to paint the scene: stairs, door, bookcase. Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while have heard both Alicia and I discuss the "rule of three." Not so much a rule, really, as this tendency for good writing to contain sets of three like items. Here, we have three setting details to paint a scene, and it works.
The next sentence describes habitual actions of the butler and Lord Darlington, but it accomplishes this in a way that echoes the orientation in the first sentence:
It was a ploy of Lord Darlington's to stand at this shelf studying the spines of the encyclopedias as I came down the staircase, and sometimes, to increase the effect of an accidental meeting, he would actually pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed as I completed my descent.
Because we already know the orientation of these setting details, we can easily picture the butler staring directly at his employer as he walks down the stairs. How much less effective would this sentence be if that spatial relationship had not already been established? Notice how the orientation details are continued in small ways throughout the balance of the paragraph:
my descent. Then, as I passed him,
back into his study
the study door was closed behind us
by the window
Because the space was established at the outset, the action can unfold against this backdrop without further pause to describe the environment. New details, such as the window, can be incorporated in the context of action without pausing that action for more detailed description.
Notice also the way the book carries through the paragraph:
the spines of the encyclopedias
pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed
volume held open in his hands
consulting the encyclopedia
What started off as a setting detail becomes a prop, and then evolves into a symbol of the awkwardness of the interaction between the two men. In this way, the setting is drawn into the action and acquires extra meaning.
All in all, an excellent use of setting.