When you plan a vacation – a real one, not a “quaracation,” for God’s sake – is the destination important to you?
A strong sense of place is what attracts me to almost every book that stays on my library shelves. I’ve even found myself compelled to visit some of the places I’ve only read about in fiction, just to get a sense of the scenery myself. A great setting can keep me engaged in a story even if the pacing and plot are taking the scenic route to the narrative climax.
In fact, the fastest way to compel me to snap up a new book is to begin the jacket summary with the phrase, “Set in the heathered hills of of the Scottish Highlands…”
I suspect I’m not the only one.
What’s a ‘Great Setting’?
For new writers, the task of mastering plots and pacing can seem all-consuming. Writing teachers place so much emphasis on the narrative arc, in fact, that a lot of the juicier, more joyful bits of writing can unfortunately get left by the wayside. Setting is one of those deep and integral things that often gets added on after the main plot has been throughly devised and refined (“Okay. We’ve got a hard-boiled detective mystery with a twist – the love interest is the killer! And the detective has amnesia, and he was an accomplice! Make a mental note to Google ‘traumatic amnesia’! So devious! Now… where should we put them?”).
Admittedly, a lot of great work begins in just this way. (Take it easy on the amnesiac plots, please.) But how many good stories could become really, truly memorable with the addition of a great setting – interesting location, deep and specific details, intriguing side characters, a real sense of the weather, and so on?
On the other hand, how many mediocre plots have been elevated into rereading territory by the addition of unforgettable setting details, resulting in the kind of elusive immersion experience we’re all after when we read: To be transported somewhere other than where we are?
Over the next few posts, I’ll break down a few decently popular books with truly unfakeable, immersive senses of place, and see how they work.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
You might’ve rolled your eyes a little, seeing this book as the first one on the list.
If you’re writing that hardboiled detective story I mentioned earlier, you might be considering skipping this section. Harry Potter is, after all, a book for children. You are a mature and sophisticated aspiring author of literary works for other mature, sophisticated adults. (Maybe.)
However, consider two things:
1) Hogwarts is so popular there are theme parks and conventions all over the world promising immersive experiences in the school of witchcraft and wizardry – attractions that mature, sophisticated adults attend, often without any children in sight, and
2) there’s a reason J.K. Rowling is a richer writer than I (or maybe you) will ever be, and it’s not because of Harry Potter’s larger-than-life personality, or Severus Snape’s dashing good looks, y’all.
It’s because, as a setting, as a world, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has all the elements of memorable, grounded place, and it has them in abundance. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Quite Literally No Boring Details
Any kid who has read Sorcerer’s Stone has tried their hardest to picture what it would’ve been like to watch Diagon Alley open up in front of them for the first time. (The movie goes for it in true campy fashion, and still, somehow, undershoots the scope of it depicted in the book.) That’s all because there’s not only not a single ordinary shop on this strange, underground high street, but each shop description is written as though one is peering in each display window in passing.
“Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping. A plump woman outside an Apothecary was shaking her head as they passed, saying, “Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they’re mad…”
A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium — Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown, and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. “Look,” Harry heard one of them say, “the new Nimbus Two Thousand — fastest ever — ” There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon…
“Gringotts,” said Hagrid.”
And then, there are the stairs at the school itself.
“There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.”
Memorable, yes? Rowling gives this description an extra shove out the door when she remarks, as though looking through the eyes of a child, that it was “very hard to remember” where anything was. An adult would be intimidated, annoyed – a child would be awed and amazed. Harry, a child, stood looking up at the staircases and the reader stands with him, processing through his emotional lens this fantastical castle and its moving staircases.
Setting Elements that Repeat
Throwaway setting elements have a way of being forgotten if they’re only mentioned in the book once, but those damned switching staircases and trick steps come into play over and over again throughout the story, don’t they? The main characters lose their ways more than once – sometimes to very plot-convenient ends – and minor characters (Neville Longbottom, in nearly every book) find themselves stuck in trick steps on the most inopportune occasions.
Character-Specific Setting Elements
Potter fans: Quick, name one of the passwords to the Headmaster’s office. Acid Pops? Lemon drop (or sherbert lemon), etc. You know these crucial setting details because they are intertwined with the complex characterization of the Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.
Then, of course, there’s the office itself, which uses sound and texture, light and dark, to sketch for the reader its contents.
“One thing was certain: of all the teachers’ offices Harry had visited so far this year, Dumbledore’s was by far the most interesting… It was a large and beautiful circular room, full of funny little noises. A number of curious silver instruments stood on spindle-legged tables, whirring and emitting little puffs of smoke. The walls were covered with portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses, all of whom were snoozing gently in their frames. There was also an enormous, claw-footed desk…“
Sleeping portraits, in case you forgot that part about No Boring Details.
This is not even a surface scratch on the enormous amount of work that Rowling invested into Hogwarts and creating an enormous setting (worldbuilding, an entirely separate yet equally important concept) that’s filled with tiny, intimate details… the kind of details that produce the immersive experience we’re after as writers and that attracts us as readers.
Next post, new genre: Up Island, by Anne Rivers Siddons.
What’s your favorite setting-forward story? Feel free to share in comments.