Monday, December 14, 2009

Emotional Settings

One of the things I had emphasized to me over and over again at Kris and Dean's Master's Class is the importance of setting. I had that lesson taught to me once again, but from a different source.

I read for the Endeavor Award. When I read a really good book, I may give a review on my blog if I'm so inclined, but generally I don't review books. First of all, reading is a very subjective sort of thing. What one person may enjoy, another may loathe. I'd much rather be accused of singing praises of a book everyone else hates or doesn't get, than be slamming a work that may be perfectly enjoyable to the vast majority of folks. I'd be hurting the author's feelings for no good reason--I'm not a paid critic so it's not my duty to point out a particularly putrescent piece of fiction--and I may deprive someone of a good read if they take my advice and avoid something they might have enjoyed. In other words, I'd rather err on the side of encouraging folks to try something I liked than go the negative route and tell people to stay away from reading no matter how bad I think a book may be.

But I digress.

This last book I read lacked setting and visceral details almost entirely. People and clothing were described on a fairly regular basis, and dripping blood, but other than that, the characters lived entirely in their own heads. Maybe that was the point. But it wasn't a very gratifying read. The action fell flat because no one felt or reacted to pain, unless it was emotional pain. The characters have scenes set all around the world, but I didn't hear turns of phrase change, and the landscape--they might as well have stayed in the United States. Any details about England, France, Wales, Russia, Italy ... I had to fill in myself based on my knowledge and experiences.

I don't want to fall into this trap.

Dean told us that he used to have a problem with too little setting in his writing. After being admonished about this many times, he finally got mad and overwrote setting in the opening of his next work. The first reader response? He nailed it.

They also reminded us in class that many of our favorite books on the class reading list were extremely setting heavy books. I remember the feeling of being in a southern swamp while reading one of the books and loving every drip from the moss and every whine from a mosquito. All the while the author had me sitting on the edge of my seat. Why?

Because the book engaged my senses while injecting opinion into every detail. I loved or hated the character's surroundings based entirely on whether the author wanted me to love or hate them. I was along for the ride.

So despite the weak book's best efforts through (overwrought) dialogue and action-packed scenes (in which people froze or ran or used telepathy a lot) I was bored and feeling like I was watching a poorly written, plotted, choreographed and filmed movie. And despite the strong book's pages-long lovingly-described scenes with little dialogue or action, I was never bored. In the weak book I was told that a character's eyes gave people chills. In the strong book, a look from a suspected killer from across the room gave me chills.

Note to self: Make every description count, and don't be shy. Setting can make or break a story.

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