Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Settings and Atmosphere

(Image from:  Gizmodo)
In Donald Maas's workshop, two blogposts back, he mentioned descriptions were the most skipped portions of any novel. 
However, characters don't act in a vacuum. 
How then, does a writer incorporated the background into the story without boring the reader, or having her skip over those eloquent descriptions you toiled over?
Book doctor, Jason Black, had several bits of advice to offer in his Settings and Atmosphere workshop. 
His key warning was not to use labels.  Two examples he used were bathtubs and bathrooms.  Both come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the location, setting and timeframe of the story.  Instead, he suggested, use concrete details.  This helps the reader understand the action and governs what is possible for the characters to do.  Details establish the parameters in determining how hard it may be for the characters to achieve their objectives and shapes how the readers will judge their actions.  It also helps readers anticipate future actions.
"Sell" the location by ginving enough surrounding detail to mask any clues and to make it real in the readers' minds.  Specifiy what matters, then you can use a label once the setting has been described. 
However, don't overdo it, otherwise readers will start skimming.
Not every location is easy to describe.  Unfamiliar places, like space stations, or other sci-fi and fantasy places are difficult because no one has any tangible experience with them in the real world. 
Speaking of the real world, "non-physical" setting like dreams and cyberspace are totally conjectural, so are even harder to describe. 
As mentioned in previous workshop posts:  Use scenes, not descriptions to show cause and effect at work. 
"Atmosphere" is the emotional part of the setting and helps readers empathize with the characters.  A general description of atmosphere will help readers understand the space emotionally, while specific details will make the reader feel what it is like to be in the scene.  So select the details, not for what they are, but what they evoke.  You can't tell readers how to feel, but must work at weaving the desired effect into the narrative.
One technique to evoke the mood of the story is to layer the descriptions.  Don't do a front-load, data-dump.  Instead, mix in descriptions with action and dialogue.  In all-out action scenes though, descriptions will slow the pace, so place the descriptions before the eruption and then after the dust settles.
The point of view (POV) a writer chooses also plays a role in evoking the story's atmosphere.  In first person narration, the reader should be limited to what the POV character sees/hears/feels.  Everything beyond should be shadowed, making the reader wonder what's around the corner...

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