Friday, October 21, 2016

Setting Versus Sense of Place

By Lisa Alber

The other day I posed a question on Facebook:

Hive mind question--I'm curious: What do you mean when you use the terms "setting" versus "landscape" versus "sense of place"? To what extent are they interchangeable?

I had been invited to be the author of the evening for a monthly series called "Wordscrafters and Wine on Wednesdays." As the guest, I was expected to talk in a teacherly fashion, which is to say impart craft wisdom, tips, tricks, how-tos to other writers.

I said "yes" to the event because a friend asked, because I support the nonprofit that hosts the event, and because I try to say "yes" to things. But ... I'm not a teacher, never have been, and I don't have natural teacher skillz -- and besides, what craft knowledge did I think I could impart anyhow? I'm the perpetual student of writing craft.

I decided to talk about an aspect of writing that I love, which is an aspect of the craft that also confounded me at the beginning of my writing journey: "sense of place."

What is that reeeealllly? Isn't it the same thing as saying "setting"? (And then there's the term "landscape" -- but I set that topic aside for my talk.)

As I learned when I posed the question on Facebook, people think of "setting" versus "sense of place" (versus "landscape") in slightly different ways, much of this being a question of semantics. Perhaps we writers think about these terms in ways that help us write the best stories we can. For me, this means that "setting" is not synonymous with "sense of place."

When I was starting out, I didn't understand what the fuss was about when it came to "sense of place." I was writing a novel set in western Ireland circa 2008, and -- duh -- the way to render this setting for readers is through specific detail that uses all five senses.

Ta-da -- "sense of place."

Yeah -- NOT. I was missing something in my understanding of the craft of sense of place, but, of course, being a beginner, I didn't know what I didn't know. This is where workshopping and feedback come in handy, where the revision process enhances our understanding of craft.

What I didn't realize was that beautiful, specific settings don't become "sense of place" until you infuse them with character. Without using your POV character as the filter through which you render the world, all you've got is description that's static. No emotional resonance. No soul. No heart.

You know when you hear readers say that they skip the descriptions? I would bet in most cases, those descriptions are static -- just the author describing the environment around the character rather than describing the environment through the character. I think of this as "pertinence." Is the description pertinent to the character at this moment in the story?

So, to me, "sense of place" is setting + characterization. Sense of place is the whole world the character inhabits, the outer world plus the POV character's interior landscape (there's that "L" word again--but I like using the word in this context), which includes her inner conflicts, agendas, goals, mood, aches, emotions, cultural context (say, for example, being a newcomer to the place versus a native), etcetera.

Imagine a kitchen window above a sink with sunlight coming through it, highlighting dew on a spider web. That's nice, but so what? Easy enough to be specific, but is this description also pertinent?

Adding character, let's pretend you have a grieving mother of a dead child: Perhaps the spider web dangles in tatters as the spider huddles off to the side, not even trying to repair it. The sunlight highlights the fragility of the spider's little world, so easily torn.

Or, a rebellious teenage daughter: Stuck like the frickin' spider, always the same web, and it maybe looks beautiful, all perfect and symmetrical and pleasing to the eye, but that spider is a prisoner--it just keeps doing the same thing day in and day out until it dies.

These are simplistic examples that touch on what I mean when I think of "sense of place." You may ask, What about so-called "literary" novels that are known for their long descriptive passages? I maintain that the ones that really work, the ones where you don't skip reading those passages, are infused with character. The character's voice and attitude coming through in how they perceive their world--and so those scenes still have forward momentum. Whereas, static description halts the story, or at least slows it way down, and sometimes reads like <gasp> authorial intrusion.

And if that pretty picture of the sun-glistening spider web isn't pertinent to the character in that moment? CUT IT. Find some other way to render the character's environment that provides emotional resonance. Sink full of moldy dishes to help show that character is terribly depressed? One chipped antique teacup to show the character's genteel but impoverished circumstances?

Specific and pertinent. (Also, remember the other four senses--not just visual.) I can't tell you how long it took me to get a grip on this. I was great with description/setting, but I sucked at sense of place.

There's so much you can do with sense of place. You can pan out to an omniscient POV to set a mood or tone (gothic novels are great at this) and then when you pan-in to the character POV you echo that mood or tone with the way the character filters her surroundings. Using sense of place is a great tool for foreshadowing, increasing suspense, and showing character in general.

Whew! So, come to find out that I did have a lot to say about this topic, and, in the end, the participants of the event (which was held in a winery--so, yes, wine!) engaged in a rousing discussion that went beyond my take on "sense of place."

Do you skip reading the descriptions? What do you mean when you use the terms "setting" versus "sense of place"?


Eileen said...

Such a great post, Lisa! A student in one of my classes has been using setting as almost a mirror to the action happening with the main character. So effective and it makes the setting so much more evocative and interesting while allowing us to rest in the moment with the character. Love it.

Edith Maxwell said...

Fabulous post, Lisa. And a lesson I need to learn over and over. Sharing!

Lisa Alber said...

Thanks Eileen, thanks Edith! Took me a long time to understand why so much of early attempts at being descriptive failed -- whew. Talk about authorial intrusion! :-)

Molly MacRae said...

This is wonderful, Lisa. You are most definitely a teacher!

Ellen Byron said...

I read Edith Maxwell's post on Wickeds, and she kindly included a link to this post, Lisa. I LOVE it. Since my series was literally inspired by a location (Cajun Country Mysteries), setting is critical to me. I love using all five senses to describe the environment, but you've inspired me to make sure it's also tied to character in future - just in case I haven't!

Pam De Voe said...

As I'm in the middle of editing, I find your post to be particularly useful! Thanks for thinking this through & sharing.