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Setting the Scene for Dialogue
by Ginger Hanson

Return to Writing Dynamic Dialogue · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Setting -- the time and place of the action of a literary work -- carries a lot of weight in storytelling because it puts the reader into your imaginary world. It enables her to step through the door you have opened and enter your story. It also changes constantly in the sense that each scene has its own setting within the overall setting of the story.

For example, your story may be set in the heyday of the cowboy West. This is the pervasive time and location of your story; it colors how the characters think, what they can do, their dialogue, their health, etc. In addition to that general setting, you will design dozens of additional settings for each scene in the book. Perhaps your story stars a schoolmarm and a cowboy. She lives in town, he lives on a ranch. As they interact in different scenes, the smaller scene setting changes offer the writer a variety of ways to incorporate the surroundings into the dialogue. So each scene, while framed by the time period of the late 19th century, will also have its own setting, such as the school house, the corral, or the local mercantile store. Each setting is filled with countless opportunities to enrich the dialogue.

Physical setting also includes tone, which can have different meanings for a writer. There's the tone of a person's voice, but there is also the tone of a setting. In this sense, we are talking about the general characteristics of the setting. The tone of gothic novel is gloomy and frightening and usually features an isolated castle full of danger. To keep the tone of the story valid, the writer would want to reflect these feelings with the dialogue, too.

In order to utilize setting to its fullest when writing dialogue, you need to anchor each scene's location as soon as possible. Not only will this help you weave the setting into the dialogue exchanges, but you'll also plant the reader firmly in the time and place of the scene. This keeps reader confusion (as to where the characters are) to a minimum and also insures that the reader experiences the scene more fully.

Story and script consultant Michael Hauge says: "One of the biggest mistakes screenwriters make is rushing through the opening, rather than allowing enough time for the reader to move from the real world into the fantasy world the writer has created."

This is valuable advice for a fiction writer, too. The overall setting of the book needs to be identified at the opening, but the setting of each scene should be vividly evoked for the reader, too. Hauge suggests:

"...picking two or three details that will create a vivid image in the reader's mind. An apartment strewn with old pizza boxes and cigarette butts, where posters of Pamela Lee adorn every wall, is a lot more vivid and interesting than the words INT. APARTMENT. The details also tell us a lot more about the character who inhabits the apartment."

Thus, the elements of a setting include the physical surroundings, the environment in general, and the less tangible mood of the chosen place. In fact, setting can be such an important presence, it's almost like another character. Cold weather permeates Tami Hoag's novel Night Sin as well as the movie Fargo and the recent television mini-series.

The physical surroundings would be the physical setting of the scene. By that, I mean a room in a house, perhaps the kitchen. Or a fast food restaurant with the scene set in the manager's office. Or the physical setting could be outdoors, such as at a lake.

When we speak of the environment of a setting, we mean the surroundings that affect a character, such as heat, smog, or an open window that allows a cool breeze to come in. Look for things in the environmental setting that can add texture to the scene. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the setting to get a better feel for the environment.

Lastly, there is the mood of a setting. This is an intangible factor that can vary depending on the mood you wish to convey in the scene. For example, if you wanted the setting to reflect the hero's depression, you put things in the surroundings that would give the feeling of depression: cloudy day, dirt-grimed room. If you want the mood to be in direct contrast to the hero's depression, you would concentrate on bright and cheerful aspects of the setting such as a sunny day and children's laughter at a playground.

Three Key Points

Dwight Swain says that there are three key points you need to remember about the world in which your story takes place.

  1. Your reader has never been there.
  2. It's a sensory world.
  3. It's a subjective world.

Let's look at these key points.

Your Reader Has Never Been There. How could she? You just made it up!

Although your reader has never been to your imaginary world, she has probably been somewhere like it, which is how we build bridges into our story worlds. For example, if your scene is set in a fast food restaurant, you can be fairly certain your reader has probably experienced a fast food restaurant. Thus, she will be immediately familiar with certain aspects of your setting.

Historical, sci-fi, and fantasy writers can't always summon up instant settings, so they often build their scenes with more detailed descriptions to entice the reader into an unfamiliar story world. How do they achieve pulling the reader into this strange world? Just like the writer who uses a contemporary setting, the scifi writer builds bridges from the familiar to the unfamiliar. We'll look into this a little more deeply later in the book.

It's a Sensory World.

You bet our world is! We live in a world of colors, smells, textures, sound, and tastes. Blue sky, freshly mowed grass, silky hair, the drone of an engine, and the taste of an ice cream cone. When you add these sensory impressions to your dialogue, what your characters see, hear, smell, touch, and taste will add vivid imagery and impact to what they say.

The five senses are also useful in determining how a character perceives the world around them, because we often favor one sense over the other. For example, your character could have an elevated sense of taste. He doesn't have to be a wine taster, just someone who enjoys the taste of food and drink. Or your heroine could have an artistic bent and be especially attuned to colors.

How does this is play into dialogue? Your hero could be sipping a fine wine that now tastes like crap because he's mad at the heroine, which fuels his displeasure with the whole situation. Or your heroine could be depressed because they're having this important relationship conversation in a dimly lit, gray room that makes her feel even more emotionally out of sorts.

It's a Subjective World.

This means we each have our own version of reality based on our life experiences. When writing dialogue, chose a focal character through which the scene flows, using that character's worldview as a frame for the dialogue. This enables you to tie the reader emotionally to the setting by the character's reactions to it.

Remember, different aspects of the setting are going to impact each character differently. The age of the character, the gender of the character, the socioeconomic background of the character, etc., all impact how the character is affected by the setting. For example, put a small child in a room and from her point of view, the adults will seem larger than life, as will the furnishings. Put a large man in a woman's frilly bedroom and he's usually uncomfortable, worried whether the fragile chair will hold his weight or if the ceiling fan will behead him.

Once you have chosen your focal character, another tool you can use when writing dialogue is to figure out how your character absorbs information. According to educational research, the three basic ways of learning are visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. Thus, a visual learner gathers new information via pictures and reading. A kinesthetic learner gathers information through touching or doing. An auditory learner gathers new information through listening.

The best learner utilizes all three ways of learning, but most of us tend to rely more on one way than another. Why is this important? Because the way in which we process new information influences how we perceive the world around us.

How does this affect the dialogue, you ask? Well, in a conversation, an auditory learner will pick up much better on the tones and nuances of the speaker than a kinesthetic speaker will. The kinesthetic learner will be more tuned into what the body is doing than what the person is saying. And as a verbal learner, I know I tend to absorb more from reading than from talking, so it's easier for me to lose track of a conversation.

Setting is a Mental Image

Whatever your setting, always remember that it is the mental image the reader forms while reading your story. Story settings encompass several aspects. As I mentioned earlier, there's the overall setting of the story such as the historical era, alien planet, or modern office, as well as the setting that changes from scene to scene. Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days exemplifies extreme change as the hero travels around the world. This leads to frequent changes of scene settings, while the story remains set within the larger framework of the 19th century.

Scene settings don't have to change that much, but this is something we tend to see more often in plays than books. This is probably due to the fact that it doesn't cost anything but time and imagination to build a new scene in a book. Scene changes in plays are much more expensive to build and move during the play.

For those who like to act in regional theater, plays with only one setting keep the expense of performing low. The Belle of Amherst, a lovely play about Emily Dickinson, is an excellent example. The play is set in her parlor. This is a logical setting if you remember anything about Emily from high school English class. She lived a pretty quiet life in a Amherst, MA and seldom left her home.

Recap

We've discovered that the setting our characters are located in is important to know when we write dialogue. The physical location can impact how much they can move and how they can move, while there are the environmental factors such as noise that can hinder or enhance their conversation and understanding. When a writer establishes the setting, it's good to remember that the reader has never been there. You want to anchor them in the scene with details that evoke the setting you wish to convey.

Copyright © 2015 Ginger Hanson
Excerpted from She Sat He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk?

This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.


Ginger Hanson writes contemporary and historical romance novels, as well as short stories and essays. She Sat He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk? her first writing skills book, has ranked in the top 10 Kindle Short Reads since its release. Ginger is also the author of a contemporary romance series set in Tassanoxie, Alabama. Fall in love with the town and its characters in Feather's Last Dance, Ellie's Song, Susannah's Promise, as well as three short stories and one novella. Gingerís historical romances include a Regency, Lady Runaway, and two Civil War era novels, Stealing Destiny and Ransom's Bride. Ginger launched Saderra Publishing, a micro-publishing company, two years ago. When not writing. Ginger volunteers with the Friends of the Library and practices Tai Chi to maintain her sanity. She and her husband live in southeast Alabama with their various rescued pets. Visit her website at http://www.gingerhanson.com.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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