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Sometimes when we write, we become so obsessed with the characters and events unfolding, we forget to pay attention to the Setting. Conflict and Action are important, don’t get me wrong, but Setting is no wallflower. Used correctly, it becomes a powerful amplifier for emotion.
Setting...The Hidden Character
Imagine if you set a character loose in your story whose only job was to put your Hero off balance. Hmm, smells like tension, doesn’t it? Setting is this hidden character! Choosing the right location for a story event can increase tension, provide mood and offer emotional contrasts, throwing your main character off his game. This makes him more reactive and volatile which leads to bad choices and mistakes...creating great conflict!
This all sounds good, but how do we know which Setting to pick for each scene?
4 Ways to Use Setting For Emotional Impact
Make it Meaningful
Setting can pull double duty by symbolizing something to your character, good or bad. Is it a place of safety, or discomfort? Does it stir up old memories? For example, if a character accidentally started a fire in his cooking class and it led to a school evacuation, if he returns to the classroom a year later, the echo of embarrassment will return. Knowing your character deeply and understanding what might bother them (or put them at ease if it serves your purpose) allows you to pick a Setting that will encourage your desired emotion to build. This can help increase tension during the scene.
Use Symbols to Trigger Emotion
Symbols hold power. They can foreshadow what is to come and trigger an emotional reaction from characters. If your hero grew up on his grandparents’ farm, he may feel a surge of lightness at noticing a symbol from that time, like an old tractor tire converted to a flower rockery in someone’s backyard. Common symbols will also have an emotional effect on your reader. If your character passes a graveyard on the way home from work, it brings about the feeling of death. The reader on some level will be ill at ease and may expect that something bad will happen. (For a list of symbols to use in writing, check out the Symbolism Thesaurus!)
Contrast can be Powerful
If the hero is filled with rage and about to rearrange the villain’s face for slashing all the tires on his car, a writer might be tempted to set the scene at night, on a deserted street with the air so cold it bites. What if instead the hero confronts the villain at the county fair on a bright blue day, with carousel music and popcorn smells and squealing kids bouncing the balloons tethered to their wrists? Think about how that level of rage stands out against such a happy, family-oriented Setting.
In your own life, how often does bad news come on a gloomy, rain filled day? Does it wait until you have time for it, or for you to be in the mood to receive it? No. Setting is an opportunity to create a contrast that forces the reader to pay attention to the emotions at work and understand their depth.
Play with Light and Dark
A different mood will emerge in any Setting depending on if it is dark or light. Think about the time of day it is in your scene--predawn, sunrise, mid day, nightfall, etc. How can time of day, shadow or light help bring out certain types of emotions? Weather can also add atmosphere to the Setting, causing roadblocks, deepening the emotional value or complicate the situation. Be wary of weather clichés of course, but use everything in your arsenal to power up your Settings!
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a CC member and Moderator, as well as a co-author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. When she isn't dreaming up cereal monsters or writing about Greek Mythology pychopaths, she blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description hub for writers and teachers.