The Horror of it All

A few weeks back, I started a conversation on what makes a book a good book. If you haven’t seen the first two posts and would like to check them out, here’s a couple of links.

Today, I’m thinking about setting and what it can do for a story, both good and bad. Please, keep my standard disclaimer in mind. I’m not an expert, I’m just a writer with an opinion, a writer would would like to be a better writer.

If you’ve taken part in any book club discussions, or been a part of a writers group, you’ve probably heard someone say “Treat your setting as another character your book.” Or some variation on that theme.

I’m the first to admit, that concept is just a little too open for me. Folks enjoy floating around these grand ideas on how to make other people better at what they do. Typically, I smile and nod and grit my teeth because those sweeping statements are over my head. Or maybe they hit me right in the head and knock me out. Either way, it’s too vague for me to really do anything with it.

Treat your setting as a character…Think about that for a moment. The setting can’t talk. It can’t walk. It can’t lounge on the couch and watch TV. It can’t fix a meal or say a prayer. The setting can’t kiss or fuck or fall asleep exhausted. The setting can’t do because the setting is too busy with simply being. It’s just there, existing, like the backdrop of a play.

So, how do you take a backdrop and make it active? How do you breathe life and a soul into something that is otherwise inanimate. Heads up, I have no freaking clue. I struggle with setting. I’m a minimalist. I’ll give the reader just enough setting so she knows for sure that the story isn’t taking place against a stark white canvas. But I’ve never once created a setting that makes my breath catch in my throat because of the beauty of it all.

I’m not alone in this. Most authors use setting as a tool, a device for the characters to move around in. Setting is a construct, a secondary consideration that sometimes reads as though it wasn’t considered at all. Some of my favorite authors, and we’re talking the classics, take the same minimalist approach with setting that I do.

But then there are others who create the most amazing, beautiful setting that makes the reader gasp and cry and clutch her partner’s hand a little too hard.

Steinbeck did it in Grapes of Wrath. King did it in The Shining. With both of those examples, the setting is trying it’s damndest to kill the characters in the book. Passively in Grapes of Wrath, and actively in The Shining.

The best, most vivid example I can think of, though, is a horror writer from the New Orleans, Poppy Z. Brite

91f5IAjVefL__SL1500_When I picked up a used copy of Drawing Blood, I had no idea who Poppy Z. Brite was. But I figured for the buck or two that the book cost, it was worth the risk. I liked the cover, so why not?

Turned out to be an excellent investment. I devoured that and moved rapidly onto Lost Souls and then Wormwood and Soul Kitchen.

As I mentioned, Poppy is a horror writer. All of her characters are fractured and broken. Some are insane. Some are slipping into insanity. The one you fall in love with may very well kill the other one you fall in love with. It’s all perfectly lovely and demented.

Did you see what happened there? I picked Poppy Z. Brite because of the way she uses setting in her stories, but I immediately took a detour to the characters. Sigh. This is why I’m not an expert. I can’t stay focused long enough to form an expert opinion.

No, about that setting. I’m going to focus on Drawing Blood because that was my first. In Drawing Blood, she describes the greenery on the side of the road, the canopy overhead, the falling down shack overflowing with classic comics, the ivy that all but swallows the shack whole. And it’s so very beautiful, the world she offers to us is so lush and alive and present, the reader has no choice but to notice. She breathes a soul into every bit of faded fabric and shredded wallpaper, every dried blood stain and vinyl record cover. She makes images both bold and outrageous, and withering and hollowed out. All at the same time. How is that even possible? She adds detail and dimension and does it all in a way that makes the reader feel…blessed.

Poppy Z. Brite is my gold standard for constructing overwhelmingly beautiful, stay with you until you die setting.

What about the rest of y’all? Where do you set the bar? And, really, how important is setting to you in the first place?

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5 thoughts on “The Horror of it All

  1. Read something recently that was set in Brisbane. Not that you’d know it: it could have been anywhere but was nowhere, aside from it being mentioned over and over that it was Brisbane. But it wasn’t, it drove me mad, hated it.

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  2. Two words Thomas Hardy, Now I know we’re talking a different century here but honestly the setting almost IS the story in his books, Beautiful, earthy and so visual it hurts to imagine it. Isn’t it the objective to wrap the setting around the character like a soothing or grotesque blanket so that the two mesh so well that you can’t distinguish one from the other? This cohesiveness, this blending is to me the author’s privilege and responsibility in writing a “good book”

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    1. So, setting is a deal breaker for you, Susan? What if it’s somewhere between Thomas Hardy and the book hrhdiana mentioned where there was no actual sign of the city other than the name being used over and over? I think most writers end up somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. That’s why Hardy stands out. I struggle with setting simply because it can drag the story down if it’s done the wrong way. I genuinely admire authors who make you feel setting.

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  3. I do not like a book that goes into setting so much that I practically forget who the characters are. That is just me!

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