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.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Setting by Example: Ishiguro
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You know, Theresa, I think that's such a good idea, to have a focus for the setting description, like "this should show something about his relationship with Lord Darlington."
That would help make the description more meaningful and connect the setting with the plot and character.
Setting detail-- I remember Katherine Mansfield used to advise using three "brushstrokes" of setting description. Three again!
Oh, I like.
And btw, as I tend to like all your stuff, I have added another follower to your repetoire by giving them your addy and they have bookmarked!
I kind of brag that you guys are my brain... :) without it, I would be mush!
Hmm. Next time you can't find your keys, L, just think, "Alicia must be responsible for that part of my brain."
Yeah, Alicia, I agree. We talk a lot about "active description" without ever really explaining what that means. It's more than verb choices. It's about using the setting in meaningful ways to highlight story elements. AND it's about the way those details are presented, of course, but there's more to it than that. The best verbs in the world can't make redundant or unnecessary setting descriptions worth keeping.
Leona, it's January. I can barely think for myself let alone anyone else! Cold weather makes me stupid, but I thank you for overlooking that fact. :)
I'm still struggling with making the setting meaningful, so this is a very useful article for me - I've saved it and shall ponder it in depth.
But in a way it contradicts one of the things you said on the RU article, which I meant to take issue with and didn't have the time: that you shouldn't describe the setting until it becomes relevant. Here, the shape of the space and the items and how the rooms connect *are* important, and as you said, simply by sketching out where every actor is in relation to each other, we can picture the 'coming down the stairs' much better.
The other problem is that most people *will* picture something. When you say 'bedroom' I'll picture one. Single bed, bookcases, table, filing cabinet.
When you later talk about the wardrobe, the four-poster, and the door to the balcony, I'll be confused - they weren't in my picture.
Green Knight, that's why unusual setting details (like a bedroom balcony) are more important to mention. I think the best way to describe it is to think in terms of the relative weight of details. Details gain weight when they become part of the action, when they're unusual, when they're symbolic, when they prevent confusion, and so forth. Does that help?
Theresa, I like the idea of 'weight' - that's a good thing to ask myself. What's important here? Why? (Often it's cross-fertilisation: once something is there, characters can interact with it, which makes a scene more interesting.)
The problem comes when a writer assumes that everybody shares their picture. When you walk through the front door of a house, where are you? In my part of the world, as often as not, in the living room, at least in older properties, so people use the back or kitchen door for every day use. What's a 'field' - grass, lined with hedges? Or corn all the way to the horizon? How does a 'typical suburban street' look in your part of the world? If writers don't take the time to set the scene, readers can get jolted.
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