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If you walked into my Introduction to Creative Writing classroom on the day that I teach setting description, you would most likely hear a student reading the passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) that depicts the red bedroom in Gateshead Hall. You might also hear excerpts from Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (2016), portraying the women’s dungeon in Cape Coast Castle or the coal mines near Pratt City. I use these passages as examples because these settings are memorable and haunting. In her essay collection Stigmata (1998), Hélène Cixous describes writing as an act of conjuring, and these authors are conjuring places. I feel transported to these locations along with these characters. Perhaps my favorite example is the following paragraph from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998):
The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.
I tell my students, “Look at those specific sensory details, those similes, those verbs. Everything is moving. Nothing is still.” While it might sound counterintuitive, I have learned to improve my writing by teaching creative writing. I care a great deal about my students, and I only want them to succeed. So I started listening to the advice that I give my students.
Here’s my main advice for my students (and myself) when it comes to bringing a setting to life:
Use active verbs. Nothing should be stagnant. Everything should be in motion. You’re not painting a backdrop, you’re creating a movie.
Integration. When it comes to setting, I have a lot of pet peeves. I hate it when setting descriptions are separate from the other elements of craft as if they are a digression or tangent. All elements of craft should be totally intertwined. Setting has to be connected to the action and characterization. Setting should amplify the tension and reveal something new about the characters. There should be no blocks of separate, stagnant, setting descriptions that a reader (like me) could just skip.
Tone. The tone of the setting should indicate and reveal the emotions of the characters. In the case of my short story, “Passing,” I wanted to illustrate the protagonist’s terror, anxiety, desire, distress, and mourning.
Defamiliarization. In his 1917 essay, “Art as Technique,” Russian formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky argues that art involves the practice of “defamiliarization.” Fiction makes a mundane world feel new, exotic, and alienating; it makes us step out of the monotony of our lives and see the world around us in a different way. Joy Williams has mastered this. Take a familiar place and make it feel unfamiliar.
Take notes. When I travel, I love reading books set in the places I visit. I also never know when inspiration will strike. For my short story, “Passing,” I jotted down notes for the opening scene on a bar napkin. This napkin often reminded me of the original setting that inspired the story and made the whole fantastical premise feel real and material.
THAÏS MILLER is the author of the novel, Our Machinery (2008), and the collection, The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She has taught literature and creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, the Bryant Park Reading Room, UC Berkeley Extension, and UC Santa Cruz. In San Francisco, she volunteers as an editorial reader for Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration at UC Santa Cruz. Learn more at thaismiller.wordpress.com