iii) WHAT WOULD YOU PERCEIVE?
There’s an exercise I do in creative writing workshops. I outline a scene and setting, then ask -
(i) If you were there along with the characters, what would you see? (a film director’s visual effects)
(ii) If you were there along with the characters, what would you hear? (a film director’s sound-effects)
(iii) If you were there along with the characters, what would you smell? (the film director can’t compete!)
(iv) If you were there along with the characters, what touch sensations would you experience?
(v) If you were there along with the characters, how would you feel?
This is the subjective side of setting. One of my sample scenes is simply walking in underneath a bridge. Here are a few typical responses -
(i) A very sudden switch from daylight to dark.
(ii) An echoing hollowness to every sound.
(iii) Smells might include staleness, mouldiness, rank odours.
(iv) Touch sensations might include the chill of the air and drips of falling water.
(v) Feelings and thoughts might include a sense of cut-off-ness, isolation in an eerie world, the oppressive weight of the bridge overhead.
It’s good training to delve deep into your memories and seek out all the details. It’s amazing how much you can come up with.
The ‘feel’ question is especially important because it brings out the essential quality of all good setting—emotional charge. You don’t even need to put the emotional charge into words if the details are right.
Dreary; cheerful; secure; disturbing; lonely; bustling … The settings that resonate are more than mere furniture or landscape features. They have an atmosphere that makes them memorable.
Of course, my check-list above is only an exercise. You’d never need to use all the details you can come up with. In practise, you need just enough details to evoke the setting, the most appropriate details for a particular emotional charge. But when you delve deep, you can often discover evocative details that you didn’t expect.