Craft: What Is Your Setting Saying?
Dear $4+ patrons,

Today's writing craft post is inspired by a question that came up in one of my writing groups, from someone who's great at writing dialogue but finds description very challenging. I suggested an interactive approach that I think will also be useful for those of us who get too invested in writing description and forget to make it relevant to the story.

If you're writing good dialogue, you may not even be aware of how much you're incorporating physicality: body language, facial movement, the distance or closeness between the people talking, the way those people interact with their environment as they talk (pacing, fidgeting, sitting or standing or lying down). From there you can build a bridge to descriptions as a dialogue between the person or setting you're describing and the characters or the reader.

I think a lot about how my personal presentation communicates with the world, because I'm trans and genderqueer, and much of what I wear is an effort to communicate my gender du jour to the world, to tell other people what pronouns to use for me and how to interact with me. Sometimes that's as obvious as a big button that says THEY. Sometimes it's as subtle as the choice of whether to wear tiny earrings or leave my ears bare. And some things about me will communicate things to the world whether I like it or not, like my nose (often correctly read as Jewish) or my diminutive height and wide hips (often incorrectly read as female). 

So when you're describing a character, consider their physical self as a means of interaction with your point-of-view person, or with the world at large if you're using a less intimate POV. It's not a verbal dialogue, but it's a very important nonverbal one. What is their physical form saying? What is their clothing saying? What is their posture saying? And how much of what they're communicating is being correctly, clearly understood? How do first impressions and later corrections shape your story?

Physical places speak, too. As a New Yorker who's used to tiny crowded stores, whenever I'm in the Midwest and I go into a supermarket, I'm awed by the acres and acres of shelves and what they say about the relative value of land there. A door that's up a flight of steps says "wheelchair users not welcome" (a line of dialogue that might go unnoticed by people who climb stairs easily). The furnishings of a person's house tell you something about their social class (or their aspirations to one), their interests and hobbies, perhaps their family and ethnicity—or perhaps there's a distinct lack of family photos, and a story behind that lack. Someone chose to build that building that way, chose to furnish that living room that way. What are those choices intended to communicate?

Just as two people might hear a line of dialogue very differently, two people might interact with a physical space very differently. I'm in a cafe right now, enjoying what for me is a very comfortable level of background noise. A person with greater sensory sensitivity might find it overwhelming. A Deaf person might not hear it much or at all. One of my WIPs focuses on two men in a city, one who loves it and one who hates it, and I really enjoy writing their different takes on the same space or the same weather. That's what makes this a dialogue, an interaction. Always keep your POV in mind when describing a place, and describe it through your POV character's interactions with that place.

Settings are never static; when I came in the line for drinks was short, but since then school has let out and now the place is packed with students. Later there will be an after-work rush, and then at closing time it'll be just a couple of customers with laptops and a tired barista slowly pushing a mop around. The living room walls that I covered with bookcases might be the next tenant's place to show off their oil paintings, or to hang a widescreen TV tuned permanently to ESPN. Today's vacant lot is next year's community garden or apartment building or pediatrician's office. Keeping those potentials in mind will help you draw out the elements of the setting that are relevant—by which I mean the ones that are interacting with the character—in the moment, letting go of the need to describe the more static aspects of the space. If your character returns repeatedly to a space, consider what's changed, just as every time you meet a friend you look to see whether they've gotten a new haircut or are in a bad mood.

Here are some examples from my description-heavy Regency romance WIP of dialogue between people and the world around them. First, between Henry's clothes and Nathaniel:

Nathaniel pasted on his best smile as a man stepped into the shop. The spring sunlight followed him in, and Nathaniel shaded his eyes for a moment until the door swung shut again. Then he got a good look at the man and the smile became several shades more genuine. Jaunty hat, neatly tied snow-white cravat, snugly tailored coat of fine green wool, and was that an ebony cane he leaned on? This gentleman might be willing to spend some real money.

I enjoyed writing this because it plays a little with reader expectations. The reader knows it's a romance and will probably guess that this is the first meeting between the romantic leads, and at first it looks like Nathaniel is considering Henry's attractiveness, a pretty classic romance intro element. But Nathaniel's a shopkeeper first and what he wants to know is what Henry's clothes say about his wealth—which in turn says a lot to the reader about Nathaniel.

Then, between Henry's friend's house and Henry:

Carstairs assisted him into a sparsely furnished sitting room, where he settled gingerly upon a lumpy sofa furnished in worn brocade. Rain began rattling at the windows, and a low fire did little to warm the room.... He tipped his head back and allowed himself to doze. When he awakened, the city outside the windows had gone dark, as had the fire. Someone had come in and lit a lamp, though the sitting room was more improved by shadows than light, and left him a platter of cold beef and some hard, crumbly cheese.

I use a lot of oblique descriptors here, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from the facts I choose to present. There are nicer elements of the house and the city, and someone with a different perspective might see them—Nathaniel, who's much poorer and hasn't eaten beef in months, would be enthralled by that platter—but Henry isn't inclined to give anything in London the benefit of the doubt. He's also quite blunt at times, thinking of the place as a "chilly house in sooty, horrid London," but I reserve that for when it's more clearly his inner monologue. 

Dialogue goes both ways, and Henry's interaction with his environment is very expressive. His social class is evident in his vague awareness of domestic staff as "someone" who comes in and performs services for which he feels no gratitude at all. Carstairs the butler gets one name; the downstairs maid gets none. Later we meet the maid through Nathaniel's eyes and he sees her as a whole person. They exchange a few words but most of the dialogue is between her body language and Nathaniel's perception:

[Nathaniel reads a note from Henry.] The housemaid was leaning against the door frame and watching him with interest—storing up gossip, no doubt. [He writes a reply.] He returned paper and pencil to the housemaid, who made a good show of tucking them into her apron without glancing at the letter’s contents.

As a member of the working class himself (though of a somewhat higher level), Nathaniel notices and appreciates the performances of moral rectitude and diligence that servants have to put on to keep their jobs. He also knows that as soon as the housemaid gets inside, she's going to read the note, because servants have to know what's going on in their houses. But it would be extremely impolite of her to read it in front of him, so they put on this little pantomime together and propriety is satisfied.

If it helps you to ease into this technique, you can write actual dialogue and then go back and paraphrase it as description. Here's how that might look for my experience of walking in New York City, where I grew up:

As I crossed 14th Street, passing the invisible border between Chelsea and Greenwich Village, it was as though the pavement under my feet said, "Welcome home."

As I crossed 14th Street, passing the invisible border between Chelsea and Greenwich Village, I thought I felt the pavement give just a little under my feet, as though to welcome me home.

Have fun with it. You might even find you like writing whimsical stories where cafes with free wifi say "Stay a while" or fancy chairs sneer "You're not wealthy enough to sit on me." Play around and see where it takes you.

Happy writing! And thanks as always for your very generous patronage.


Story Nurse