Setting and “Show Don’t Tell”
Setting, the most description-heavy part of a story, benefits from the classic advice, “Show Don’t Tell”. We’ll be addressing this advice from a few different angles in other posts, but in this one it feels right to start with the well-worn opener, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
We love Snoopy and the Peanuts writing comics. They ring true in many ways. Let’s just jump in with his constant opener and how much he tells and doesn’t show.
Descriptors vs. Demonstrators
In general, these two methods make the difference between showing and telling. Though it’s most applicable to active elements like character, setting is no different. Using our example, this would go from, “It was a dark and stormy night…” to something like this:
Charlie pulled away the window curtain to an explosive crack of thunder. The light threw the yard into a brief, startling contrast but only for a moment. As the rumbling continued, he closed the curtain again as he could see as much with it closed as he could when he had it open.
Granted that’s just a rough option. Still, demonstrators allow far more details to enter the picture. This storm could be a snow storm. The darkness could be from whipping snow, a moonless night, driving rain, or gales of dust at midnight. These suggest different settings right away, skipping the second half of the sentence. “It was a dark and stormy night in the desert” becomes “Wind and desert dust make a bright day dark, but together they turn a dark night deadly.” Again, rough, but it’s more compelling.
They also move the action of the story forward. In our first example, there was a character. Just describing setting (or using a character merely to introduce a paragraph of description) is one of the chief methods of slowing down a narrative.
Active Feature vs. Passive Frame
Not every story needs to be super-fast-paced, but if you need to stop the story to describe the scenery, that should raise a question. What role does the setting play in the story? Is this just because you need a place for the story to happen? Or is the setting an active, contributing feature?
In terms of our example, a “dark and stormy night” would be particularly troublesome to characters either trapped by it, or trapped in it. That’s typical for setting-oriented conflicts, though there’s lots of room for creative uses. It’s rooted in the classic man vs. nature conflict.
Shaking it up and trying new things is the essence of creativity, so we’ll try to do that here:
Rain flew directly at the windshield in blinding sheets, stopping the headlights from lighting more than a few feet ahead. Beth kept checking her rearview. If her headlights couldn’t make it through, then Charlie’s wouldn’t. For all she knew he was close enough to knock her off the road.
At this point, we’ve set up the setting to throw any number of unpredictable hurdles for Beth in her desperate escape. Slick roads, falling debris, potholes, car trouble, etc. The setting is anything but passive.
Symbolism and Tone
Using setting for its symbolism and power to set tone is just as traditional as the man vs. nature conflict. The Wizard of Oz (the film) is a visual example of this, though it can be accomplished with words just as effectively. However, including rain just because it makes the scene sadder, or humidity/heat just to make a scene oppressive sells short the power behind a good description.
Unlock the potential of symbolism and tone in description by incorporating the elements together. Assigning responsibility for tone solely to one element makes for a poorly woven story and readers will notice. There are powerful clichés tied to using setting in this way, and “dark and stormy night” leads the list as the best image for tension, suspense, and/or horror.
This use is flimsy when used on its own, but any setting’s tone (or any symbolism it may carry) depends entirely on the assembled elements of the story. Looking at the above examples, it’s clear the details used to show the setting determine the tone far more than the literal location. For a literary support for this, the American Midwest is portrayed in both The Wizard of Oz and The Grapes of Wrath with drastically different tones. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s a boring place and a kind of prison for young Dorothy, but it’s nothing if not productive (huge stacks of hay, abundant livestock, and a well-stocked cellar). In The Grapes of Wrath, the setting is a threat and an enemy to escape, a powerful motivator for starving families traveling to California in droves.
While constantly advising “show don’t tell” doesn’t give much useful instruction beyond meaning “write it again, but better”, at least take some time to know what it can mean for different elements. See what some extra work with setting can do for your story.