Why Choosing A Setting Is Importanton Mar 28 in Blog Posts, Normal by cosproductions
Know the best advice I’ve gotten as a writer in the past decade or so?
“When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.”
That wise counsel came from my brilliant editor, Natalia Aponte, her thinking that if you describe the scene from the origin of the light, everything else would take care of itself, and she couldn’t be more right. Shadows splay across characters’ faces, further exaggerating the conflict and suspense. Light shines in a hero’s eyes, preventing them from seeing a gun in the villain’s hand. See, for me where let’s call it the Aponte Rule comes into play is making sure all scenes are described from the inside looking out, and not the outside looking in. That makes the characters seem more like spectators to the action instead of active participants, and it also serves to pull the reader further into the story, making they feel a part of the action.
I’m a thriller writer, meaning setting is especially crucial since so much of my work is based on the complex choreography of action scenes where I become like a film director in measuring out every step. In that regard, some settings become virtual characters in their own right. Let’s use my latest book PANDORA’S TEMPLE, featuring the return of my long-time series hero Blaine McCracken after a 15-year absence, as an example. The bad news is that Pandora’s temple, built to house the mythical Pandora’s box, was an equally mythical structure so nobody’s really sure what it looks like. The good news is that Pandora’s temple was a mythical structure so nobody’s really sure what it looks like.
Once you decide to call a book “Pandora’s Temple,” you have to reveal that particular setting at some point, no question about it since to do otherwise is to risk letting the reader down. So I had incredible liberty to describe the setting as I visualized it but also an incredible responsibility to do so credibly and believably. How could a structure that dates back to 1670 BC still be around today? How could it have been preserved? Why hadn’t it been found before? And what happened to the mythical box (that was actually a jar) stored inside it? Those questions pose the kind of challenges intrinsic to any writer dealing with historical reinvention or re-imagining. But it also means the reader is being treated to a setting the likes of which they’ve never encountered before.
Setting, you see, especially in the kind of thrillers I write, is a function of story. The villain of PANDORA’S TEMPLE is a recluse suffering from a rare and deadly ailment that forces him to live in what is essentially a massive hyperbaric chamber. I could have put it anywhere, but I decided upon something rare and colorful, that being a fortress built on the peak of the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain. The setting proved so rich and elaborate, I ended up using it as the setting for the climactic battle as well. It lent itself perfectly to the kind of staging I was looking to do. Not my original intention, but one that’s both fitting and organic to the book, so I went with it.
As I intimated before, in thrillers like PANDORA’S TEMPLE, settings are pretty much places where action and other stuff happens. The book opens with Blaine McCracken rescuing four college student hostages from a Mexican drug lord. I made the drug lord’s headquarters an old Spanish fort, defensible and fortified enough to make McCracken’s task all the more difficult. That way, when McCracken and company lay waste to all that’s around them, you can picture every move. Smell the grilling food and feel the dusty air against your face. The setting has the effect of injecting life into the scene. Contrast that with another sequence set in a New Orleans office building. Sounds simple enough, except for the fact that killer, out-of-control robots run rampant shooting up everything. In that case the setting was mundane, even dull. Just what’d you expect until everything goes horribly wrong in the last place you’d expect it to.
Getting back to the Pandora’s temple itself, I had to ask myself two questions: where could it be and where do I need it to be for the needs of the story? Well, underwater seemed a natural fit for a whole bunch of reasons, but it had to be under-underwater to explain why it’s escaped detection for so long while remaining generally whole. So I came up with the notion of creating the world’s largest underwater cavern, modeled after some very real and very big versions found in Mexico. That allowed me to add a giant squid to the mix because, setting doesn’t just serve the demands of story, it helps create story. But PANDORA’S TEMPLE also includes a bunch of scenes set on an offshore oilrig that forced me to do a ton of research to make sure I got everything as right as possible. After all, nobody knows exactly what a massive underground cavern, mountaintop fortress, or ancient temple necessarily looks like. An offshore oilrig is something different entirely. You could look up on Wikipedia to find all the mistakes I could’ve been guilty of, meaning I couldn’t be guilty of any. So for different settings, different rules apply.
Let me show you what I mean. Close your eyes and visualize yourself on a beach in summer. What’s the first thing you see in your head? Is it a person coming toward you, is it something glistening off the water, is it your own footprints in the sand behind you, or somebody else’s ahead of you? Any of these can quickly become an integral component of the story. And where’s the light, the sun? Is it in your eyes? Is it reflecting off the water? Does it make it hard to make out who that person coming toward you is?
In books there are no wrong settings and no right settings. There are places characters need to go to accomplish what they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And if the writer always knows where the light is coming from, he or she will nail it every time.