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Robert's Rules of Writing #21: Set Yourself Down

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Last week, we looked at Masello's rules in which he advocates for good research and a good handle on place. With this rule, Masello talks about setting. Rather straightforwardly, he points out that the setting of your story is in some ways a character in and of itself. And you can use the setting in two ways: as your readers perceive it, and as your character does.

The example he gives is a man living in the suburbs. If he feels trapped, he's going to complain about the sameness of the lawns. But if he loves the place, he'll be more likely to admire the landscaping.

That's pretty good advice, and I'm going to take it a step further. Many beginning writers start out describe their setting in a static fashion, something like this:

"The hot sun beat down on the dusty road. The wind blew. A large house with gables and shuttered windows stood on a high hill."

While a static description does paint a picture, it's far better to paint the picture in a more active manner. One way to do this is how Masello suggests, by having a character react to the setting:

"John wiped the sweat off his forehead as he trudged along the road. He kicked up dust, which got into his mouth and lungs, and for a few seconds he fell into a coughing fit. When he finally recovered, he shaded his eyes against the sun and took another look at the old house. It stood high upon the hill, looming over the empty landscape with its evil presence. To John's eyes, it looked as if the house's shutters were doing their best to trap something inside. Despite the heat, John felt a brief chill."

But another way is to make the setting itself active, almost alive, in its description. Observe:

"Harsh sunlight bounced off the road, filling the air with an oppressive heat. A brief, scorching wind howled past as it climbed up the hill to the dark, abandoned house. One of the shutters, loose in the wind, banged against the window in a constant rhythm. Although it made a noise loud enough to wake the dead, there was no one left to wake."

Just for the fun of it, if anyone wants to try, here's an exercise. Take the following static description and write it twice for two different characters -- one who loves the place, and one who loathes it.

"In the park, a copse of trees surrounded a pond. The sun was partly obscured by a cloud. Large numbers of people whiled away the day, playing games, swimming, or just relaxing."

Comments

(Anonymous)

Yeah, But

Why must a writer be an expert at depicting scenes of suffering or intolerable environments? But it seems he must have or develop an expertise at these if he is to be a writer.--John Thiel
I tend to use the first example: having the character react to the setting. Though, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I write in first person.

The second scenario seems more appropriate for third person.
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