My younger children and I recently read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning. It's not the first time I've read the book, but it IS the first time I've read it while analyzing Lemony Snickett's writing techniques. I was underlining, taking notes in the margins, and swooning practically the entire book.
Even though the book is geared for elementary to middle school aged children, I still took away plenty of writing lessons that I could apply to my own YA and adult books.
I was particularly impressed with what an amazing job Snickett did of bringing the setting to life.
Of course, like most of the elements in his book, the setting is over-the-top (OTT) which here means: extreme to the point of being unrealistic. While OTT elements often can work in a children's story, they don't work as well in YA or adult fiction. Nevertheless, I think we can still evaluate Snickett's techniques and employ them to any genre or writing style.
I like to look at the setting of our scenes the same way we might a stage at a theater production. The actors usually don't walk around on an empty platform.
Rather there are props, backdrops, and furnishings. Likewise, we can't have our characters walking around in empty or sparse scenes. We need to infuse the scenes with a variety of elements too.
But what do we use to set the stage? And how?
Here are a few things Snickett did particularly well:
1. Set the stage right away.
The orphan children were arriving at their new home and Snickett immediately sets the stage so that the reader knows exactly how things look.
"The bricks were stained with soot and grime. There were only two small windows, which were closed with the shades drawn even though it was a nice day. Rising above the windows was a tall and dirty tower that tilted slightly to the left . . . The entire building sagged to the side like a crooked tooth."
From the beginning of a scene, we need to give our readers a clear picture of where the characters are. Perhaps we won't have a full paragraph of descriptions (which worked for Snickett in his OTT story, but rarely works well for most other genres). But we can unfold the setting in small bites for our reader.
Sidenote: Be wary of cluttering up the stage with too many people and too many props.
2. Set the stage often enough.
Snickett doesn't stop after he's set the stage. No, he continues to bring the setting to the reader's mind throughout the scene. As the children step inside their new home, he further describes props, backdrops, and furnishings.
"Even by the dim light of the one bare light bulbs that hung from the ceiling, the three children could see that everything in the room was filthy, from the stuffed head of a lion which was nailed to the wall to the bowl of apple cores which sat on a small wooden table."
Often writers get so excited by their dialogue or swept up in their plot, that they forget to continue to ground the reader in the setting. When that happens, we risk having our characters become "talking heads" where two or more people are conversing without much else going on.
3. Set the stage strategically.
Those working in theater productions (or on movie sets) know the importance of making every detail of the setting count for something. They never haphazardly put an item on the stage, but rather decide on props with careful planning. And Snickett doesn't randomly describe things in the setting either.
For example, when the children arrive at their new home, Snickett describes the house next door first. "The children looked out and saw the prettiest house on the block. The bricks had been cleaned very well, and through the wide and open windows one could see an assortment of well-groomed plants."
Snickett didn't randomly decide to describe the neighborhood at large. Rather he honed in on the neighbor's home for (at least) three reasons:
• For setting a mood. He makes the reader feel cheerful and happy, that perhaps things might not turn out so bad for the orphans after all.
• For adding contrast. Right after describing the neighbor's house, then he shifts to their new home. In contrast to the pretty home, we're left feeling even worse for the children.
• For defining characters. We come to realize that the description of both houses is a reflection of the people who live inside them.
Sidenote: While strategically picking props and backdrop, make sure those are things the POV character would actually see from their perspective and personality.
My Summary: We can choose our props for many reasons–to use as symbolism or to help further the plot or to act as a decoy. Whatever the case, the better we set the stage, the more pleasure we bring to our readers reading experience!
So how about you? How are you doing setting the stage of your scenes? What are some other tips or tricks that you utilize when laying out your settings?