My friend Night-mare wrote a response to my blog here and of course, that got my brain thinking of some advance techniques for playing with setting. If you want to see the first part of Creating Setting, go here.

Advanced Tip for Setting

Night-mare mentions how different characters should have different feelings when it comes to their surroundings. A person’s background and experiences will always color their perception of their surroundings. Now, the easy answer is to match the internal mood to the external: if your main character is depressed, make it rain. If your two main characters are having their very first romantic kiss, have a perfect sunset hang behind them. If the villain has just appeared, have a lightening storm.

Yeah, that’s an easy technique and, don’t get me wrong, it can serve its purpose. You can’t have all your writing be mysterious – you’ve got to help your reader sometimes. If you want to make it really, really obvious that someone is the bad guy, then have that first introductory scene during a thunder storm. Let their words get punctuated by cracks of thunder. But do so consciously.

Now for the advanced technique: some of the best writers I’ve read have used this time and again. Instead of having the external match the internal, there is a dissociative quality to making the setting and the action be in complete misalignment. Let’s say our main hero just got rejected by the girl of his dreams. In pure, blistering sunlight surrounded by the scent of roses with children laughing in the background. It might be tempting to make a cloud cross over the sun for a second, to show the Earth somehow reacting to this tremendous internal conflict your character is experiencing, but you don’t. The sun shines, children laugh, the world keeps turning even as your character’s heart is breaking.

The reason this is so effective:

1) Deeper themes

Surface level emotions like “happiness” or “sadness” can easily be reflected in the weather. Again, while these can be useful in some cases, sometimes having the weather match a character’s internal mood is a lazy way of creating atmosphere. By creating a contrast, you can go deeper into a character’s motivations and feelings. Take our rejected hero for example: he just had his heart handed to him. He feels as if his world has fallen apart. At the very least, he feels that someone should notice how much tremendous pain he is experiencing, and yet no one does. This theme – being invisible, being unnoticed and inconsequential – can add to the story. Instead of just “sad,” you’re also getting lost, disconnected, alone, AND sad.

2) Dual feelings

In stories, sometimes you can read everything as black and white, good vs. evil, right and wrong. But in real life, things tend to exist in a gray area. More than that, a certain duality can exist within people. We can be both happy and sad, proud and envious, crowded and alone at the same time. Our rejected hero, for example, may be surrounded by laughing people but he certainly doesn’t feel as if he has company.

3) Character growth

The way characters react to each other is what tension and conflict are all about. On that same thread, the way a character reacts to setting is just as important. Why is it important that this conversation happen here? Why with this person? Why now? Would he or she have reacted differently in another place? For example, let’s say our rejected hero is standing in a park when his lady love rejects him. Would it be different if they were having dinner at a family restaurant instead? How about during their math class? How about behind the bleachers during recess? How about in an office surrounded by coworkers? These are important for character depth as well as growth.

Again, I’m not saying that every scene should be written with conflicting setting. All I am saying is that you should be conscious of the effect your setting will have on your characters, and you should do so with intention. If it is going to rain while your hero is rejected by his lady love, what is the mood you are setting? Is it compelling, is it strong? Is it illustrating the theme you wish to highlight?

Whatever you do, do it with intention. And when you edit, question why you have decided on a particular setting. See if you can’t make it a little stronger, especially if a scene feels dull.