The picture was basic, the picture of a tree and a waterfall. The National Geographic photographer lecturing on the art of photography asked the audience if the picture could be better. The next picture he showed of the same tree and waterfall was clearer, more interesting. The tree was an evergreen tree, slightly lopsided, standing at the base of a raging waterfall. Still the picture was not good enough. When the final picture came on screen there came a collective gasp. The picture was breathtaking. The evergreen tree, trunk drunk black and roots tethered to the craggy bluff, strained right of the fall’s white wash, as if attempting to capture one, last, breath.
The Writer Chooses The Setting
Like the National Geographic photographer, the writer does not have to capture every aspect of her setting. Sometimes in creating setting it is the absence of setting that breathes reality into a story. Kate DiCamillo, in her fantasy novel The Tale of Despereaux, proves that an author can make setting vivid by forgoing comprehensive detail and by focusing her description on those details that matter most. She accomplishes the perfect setting by writing a story that interests her, by exploring what her characters think and feel, and by balancing objective and subjective details.
See With Your Heart First and Then Your Eyes
When the photographer or cinematographer looks through the viewfinder, what is she looking for? Why is she pointing the camera there? Simply, she points the camera where she wants, at the image that bests tells the story. Kate DiCamillo does just this in her scene between Despereaux and Princess Pea. The scene involves a castle and even more specifically a certain mouse hole. It is at this hole that Dicamillo points her lens:
“Hidden in a hole in the wall of the princess’s bedroom, the mouse listened with all his heart. The sound of the king’s music made Despereaux’s soul grow large and light inside of him. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘it sounds like heaven. It smells like honey’” (23).
DiCamillo does not concern herself with the castle setting, but rather with the heart of a mouse hiding in a hole. Our attention is fixed on little Despereaux and what is important is not the castle, the bedroom, or even the princess, but the music. Author Janet Burroway suggests that the writer spend their time on the details “that matter” (76). Focusing on the details “that matter” is the author taking careful aim at setting. Like the photographer, the writer needs that perfect framing, not the panorama. But what if the writer wants to focus on the panorama, and can the absence of setting be good for all stories?
What Is the Character Thinking and Feeling?
The use of setting depends largely on the style or genre of a book. Author John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction explains that
“The setting of a tale [as is the Tale of Despereaux] is customarily remote in either time or space or both and is presented with a mixture of vagueness and generality on one hand and with meticulously exact detail on the other.” (76).
The absence of setting therefore does not apply to all genres but it should be noted that meticulous setting too is not required for all genres. Finding the balance between lots of setting and perhaps little to no setting involves writing the kinds of stories that mean something to you, stories you love (Gardner 18).
Point a finger at your heart. If you write what’s in there, you will find your setting.
Sadly, there is no how-to-guide on setting. Setting is more than just a lamp sitting on the table here or a screen door there. It’s about the place the author points their lens, the place that stages the plot and characters moving in and out of the viewfinder.
“The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel; that is, enable us to experience as directly and intensely as possible, though vicariously, what his characters experience” (44).
Again we turn to Dicamillo. Remember setting can be vivid, can explain in detail a dungeon let’s say, with all its misshapen steps and black slime, all its gritty bars and bedraggled prisoners. But our author chooses to point her lens at Despereaux. She shows her reader the dungeon through his tiny eyes:
The dungeon, reader, stank. It stank of despair and suffering and hopelessness. Which is to say that the dungeon smelled of rats.
And it was so dark. Despereaux had never before encountered darkness so awful, so all-encompassing. The darkness had a physical presence as if it were a being all its own. The mouse held one small paw up in front of his whiskers. He could not see it, and he had the truly alarming thought that perhaps he, Despereaux Tilling, did not even exist. (68 – 69).
What is a dungeon? What is it like? According to DiCamillo, a dungeon is inescapably dark and that is all the setting we need to know.
Use Subjective and Objective Description
So, if setting is less about material and more about what the author knows and loves, and about what the character feels and experiences, is it safe to say that a writer can eliminate setting altogether? John Gardner says, no. He advises that setting is composed of objective and subjective details. The writer needs to construct a real enough world in order for her reader to feel comfortable in the “fictional dream” (45).
DiCamillo demonstrates what Gardner is talking about by bouncing back and forth between objective (concrete, physical descriptions) and subjective (thoughts, perceptions) descriptions in her re-description of the dungeon.
He saw that the floor of the dungeon was littered with tufts of fur, knots of red thread, and the skeletons of mice. Everywhere there were tiny white bones glowing in the darkness. And he saw, in the dungeon tunnels through which Botticelli led him, the bones of human beings, too, grinning skulls and delicate finger bones, rising up out of the darkness and pointing toward some truth best left unspoken (DiCamillo 237).
Imagine Kate DiCamillo focusing her lens and zooming ever so closer to get that perfect setting. The waterfall of terror is booming behind Despereaux and it’s not the wide angle, not the whole of the situation DiCamillo wants; it’s Despereaux’s squinty eyes and the white bones and red thread; and like our brave little hero we know despair.
Looking at the grand scheme can be nice, but not always picturesque. Knowing when and where to focus your setting is crucial to making setting work.
- What do you know and love,
- what does your character think and feel,
- what objective and subjective details can you give to make your fictional dream come alive?
These are all questions a writer should ask themselves when crafting their narrative. And if said writer should need a little help, might I suggest touring a certain castle belonging to Princess Pea. I hear there is a splendid little guide by the name of Despereaux Tilling who knows the castle’s every nook and cranny.
Burroway, Janet, and Susan Weinberg. Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. Illus. Timothy B. Ering. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2003. Print.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: A. Knopf, 1984. Print.