If Edith Wharton had set Ethan Frome in the Deep South instead of New England, she would have been compelled to write a different book. The lugubrious heat of southern Mississippi could not reinforce the frigidity of her characters' loveless existence—Wharton needed the brittle winter landscape of Vermont to fulfill her novel's purpose. Setting is as important to certain stories as the characters who inhabit that setting. Can you imagine The Great Gatsby set in Minneapolis, or Oliver Twist set on a farm in southern Italy?
Not all stories require a strong sense of place. Many successful novels and stories take place in nameless cities or anonymous yards or on unidentifiable stretches of road. Their energy and atmosphere come not from setting, but from the complexities of character, the intricacies of plot, the quality of language. If setting is part of a story, however, it should have a function other than to create atmosphere or background. Descriptions of place are like snapshots—they record a setting. Unfortunately, some snapshots, like some descriptions, are more involving than others.
Imagine looking at your uncle Simon's photographs of his trip to Wyoming. You sift through view after view of dark mountain ranges, cloud-filled sky, red sunsets, and long shots of prairie dogs, trying to keep your eyes open. Why does magnificence always seem so dull in reproduction? Probably because most people aren't good photographers: they snap their cameras with no eye for composition. Nothing stands out. Still, you come upon a happy accident occasionally: a moment before Uncle Simon snapped Mount Rushmore, his hat blew off his head and began rolling end over end into the middle of his shot. The result is a picture of Uncle Simon's fishing cap floating like an offering before the stony likenesses of four American presidents. Not only do you suddenly have an image you can remember, you have a way of understanding why Uncle Simon was so awed by his trip, and you know what he means when he tells you, "I felt small."
Descriptions of setting should provide that same click of understanding. You can go on for pages about the white cliffs of Dover, but until you throw in the equivalent of Uncle Simon's fishing cap, the yawning readers are reading (or, more likely, skipping) the equivalent of a dimestore postcard. The purpose of place description is not to provide a general background or atmosphere, but a specific background or atmosphere. Telling the readers that the sunset is beautiful or that the town was built in 1723 is fine; but if the sunset turns out to be the last thing the character sees in the living world, and 1723 is the birthdate of the character's earliest known ancestor, then the setting takes on added weight.
Every description of place should have a memorable quality that hints at the story's meaning. Otherwise, you're just filling up space. Let's take as an example a story about a woman visiting Quebec City, Canada:
Version One:Maxine walked along the Dufferin Terrace, a walled promenade that surrounded the upper part of Quebec City. The sky above her was a lovely blue, and below her the St. Lawrence River ruffled along, busy with boats. As she approached the end of the Terrace, she could see the Chateau Frontenac, its turrets gleaming in the afternoon light.
This description is not bad, but neither is it breathtaking or even useful. Nothing in it gives the slightest clue as to the reason for Maxine's presence in this city. The turrets are nice, and the "ruffling" river is mildly interesting, but the description is too generic to allow the readers to "see" the city in any particular way.
Benign descriptions of setting add nothing to a story's purpose. If the setting is static and perfunctory, existing only as an introduction to other events, then it serves merely as a way into the story, and that's not good enough. In the example of Maxine in Quebec, you should give your readers some small indication about what the setting means to her. Is it intimidating? liberating? scary? exciting? Maxine could be local, a tourist, a travel guide on her lunch hour, or a thief on the lam. Right now she isn't much more than another landmark in the setting.
Let's try this description again, with an eye toward giving place description a purpose:
Version Two:Maxine walked along the Dufferin Terrace, practicing her French. She whispered the words for please and thank you and how much, occasionally glancing over the wall at the cliffs dizzying drop into the blue-black water of the St. Lawrence River. A half-mile ahead of her the Chateau Frontenac already appeared to loom—frothy and ridiculous against the modest jumble of buildings that surrounded it. She stopped to stare, trying to pick out her room from the hundreds of tiny curtained windows. Slices of sky appeared through the hotel's dozens of turrets, making greener the ancient hotel's rusting copper rooftops.
This revised description gives your readers a much stronger sense of a woman in a foreign place. The walk on the terrace takes place in the context of her practicing her French, which immediately sets her up as a stranger. The proximity of the cliff lends a mild sense of danger or disequilibrium to her experience. The "hundreds of tiny, curtained windows" suggest the hotel's enormity, but also suggests the anonymity Maxine must feel as she looks for her room. At the same time, the great chateau looks "frothy and ridiculous," rather than imposing or intimidating. Maxine may be alone in a large and foreign place, but the whimsical description of the hotel suggests that she is not frightened at the prospect. These details are the equivalent of Uncle Simon's fishing hat, for they place Maxine in Quebec City in a way that allows us to "see" both her and the city.
Relative Details Besides making the story itself more evident, the revised version improves on the original in another way. The various parts of the setting—the sky, the hotel, the terrace—are rendered in relationship to each other.
One way to make a setting come alive is to describe one thing in relationship to something else. The size of a tree becomes more vivid if you describe the bird's nest wedged into the end of one of the branches, or the nuthatch working its way down miles of trunk. A river can look black against a blue sky, or blue against a backdrop of pale buildings.
In Version One of the above description, each detail is independent of every other detail. First we see the terrace, then the river, then the chateau. We don't know how big one thing is compared to another, or how far apart the things are, how impressive they are to Maxine, or even what anything actually looks like, except that the chateau has turrets. In Version Two, however, the chateau becomes a focal point because of its contrast with the "modest jumble of buildings" that surrounds it. We assume that the chateau must then be "immodest" and that it stands apart from or above the "jumble." We "see" the city through that one contrasting detail, and understand why the chateau "already seems to loom" when Maxine is a half mile away. Similarly, the sky is not simply a sky, but a detail that visually shapes and colors the rusted copper rooftops of the chateau. Relating details to each other in this way adds depth and accuracy to a setting, inviting readers into the world of the story.
Sensory Details As in any good description, sensory details can help shape the readers' experience. Consider the following descriptions of the same pond:
Version One: Belle turned off Lucas Street to where the gravel path wound around the pond. The sky was blue, the day warm, the ground solid under her feet. She walked down the path to where the reeds began, and looked across the water to where some water lilies floated over the brackish surface. A family of ducks made their way through the lilies, quacking softly. A wind disturbed the water, and she closed her eyes. She loved this place; she could get away from her family here. It was peaceful and calm.
Version Two: Belle held to the path until it crooked around the south end of the pond. She stopped for a few moments simply to listen, then followed the trail she had matted into the grass over the past two weeks. It wound through the reeds and ended at the edge of the water. She sat down, pressing her hands into the spongy earth, listening hard, dissecting the confusion of sound: an oriole's mournful piping, the rustle of grass, the white noise of insects, the slap of muskrats diving from the banks, the intimate quavering of mallards steering through snags of water lily. By now she could identify each note of the pond's great teeming. Behind her, on the other side of the trees, whined the morning commute on Lucas Street, high and insistent and inescapable. Farther still, she could (she imagined) hear the clash of words—ugly, staccato, incomprehensible—in the cluttered kitchen she had come here to escape.
A gust of wind moved the water, making the world reflected there—tree, cloud, sky—seem to explode, then calmly reassemble itself. She looked to the far bank. A blot of yellow moved through the brushy tangle of the pond's far side, a warbler looking for nesting material. It was the time of year for making homes.
Version One introduces any old character looking at any old pond. Version Two introduces a troubled woman coming to a unique place that she has chosen for its restorative qualities. What's the difference? Look at the sensory quality of the detail. In Version Two, Belle is taking in this place very specifically, through her senses. The generic description of the first version—reeds, ducks, and water lilies—gives way in the second version to more specific detail (the sound of orioles, mallards, muskrats) and the occasional visual surprise, like "blots of yellow [moving] through the brushy tangle."
Notice, too, that in Version One the details are almost exclusively visual, and in Version Two the details are almost exclusively aural. Describing the pond through sound rather than sight works in two ways. One, sound makes the pond much more sensually alive, more a real place than a snapshot in which "the sky was blue, the day warm." When we experience a place, we often tune in through sound as much as sight. Here, we "see" everything even more clearly through the vehicle of sound, because sound connotes movement: the mallards' quavering brings to mind a raft of birds moving over the water; the insects' "white noise" brings to mind harmless swarms of nearly invisible bugs; the sound of the muskrats brings to mind their disappearing backs and dripping tails; even the "whine of traffic" conjures images of incessantly moving cars.
The focus on sound suggests that Belle can dissect the "confusion of sound" in the pond in away she cannot dissect the "incomprehensible" sounds in the "cluttered kitchen she had come here to escape." The pond is not simply fill-in or background or atmosphere: Belle's presence there is purposeful and gives us information about her. Every noise and color in that pond has a counterpoint in the house that Belle is escaping. Even as she marvels at the "intimate quavering of the mallards," she can hear the "whine of traffic just over the ridge of trees, high and insistent and inescapable." The conflict in the story is beginning to suggest itself through the description of place.
It's easy to get lost in the beauty of your own prose when describing setting, but you can't afford to forget for one moment that you are writing a story. Every beat of the prose must have some bearing on the story you wish to reveal.