How to use setting to control your readers' reaction

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A story is much more than the plot. Much more than what the characters do and say. A mature story is a painting that speaks to the reader's soul, placing him in the scene, making him feel the emotions of the characters.

One of the most important tools that the writer has to control reader reaction is the setting and the way in which he presents that setting. Here is an assignment from my years in school. List the facts of a setting, and then write two scenes, using those same facts to give the reader two, very different, experiences.

Just the facts: An automobile showroom, lights gleaming off the walls of glass and the perfect cars. Racks of automobile literature, a Coke machine, a coffee maker and styrofoam cups. Hanging on the walls, a mounted elk's head and a picture of the owner with Bill Clinton.

Scene 1

Turner-Tate Motor Company glistened in the rain, an island of light in a windswept, gray sea. Todd pulled into the parking space nearest the door. Through the drizzle on the windshield, Amy could see the shiny vehicles modeling on the immaculate floor. She touched his denim knee with her fingertips. "I'm so excited."

He grinned. "Yeah. Me too. Our first new car. But we're just looking," he cautioned. "Make them think we're just looking."

"Ok." He was so smart, she thought. Inside, the giant glass windows kept out the wind, the rain, the winter night falling quickly. They contained the light and the warmth, and Todd was right in the middle, looking at a black, Dodge Ram pick-up. It gleamed on the floor like a huge piece of polished onyx, and the silver Ram's head was bright, bright as the lights gleaming in Todd's eyes.

Amy studied the picture by the door of an attractive middle-aged man with the President of the United States. "And then I looked up," she told Todd's mother later, "and there was the man coming toward me--not Bill Clinton--the other one."

Later, as Todd signed the paperwork, Amy studied the elk's head looking down on them. "And I swear, Momma, that big old thing was just smiling down on us. Like we was doing the right thing, you know?"

Scene 2

Turner-Tate Motor Company sat at the edge of town, and the giant floodlights that surrounded its perimeter reminded Inez of the floodlights on the prison. They were both islands of garish, unnatural light amid the dark, silent fields of soybeans.

As she stepped into the showroom, she was shocked by how clean it was, how shiny, how it smelled of new leather and Windex. Not like the chicken plant, and she thought how shabby, shabby she must look in her Tyson uniform. That made her angry at herself. She worked didn't she? Wasn't taking nothing from nobody. Wasn't asking for no hand-out. She was within her rights here, she knew that. The papers said that they had 72 hours to back out of the deal. She had two hours left.

So why was her heart pounding?

In front of her was a huge black pick-up just like the one Todd had bought. A big, hulky monster with a head like a sheep that mocked her, smirked at her, as if to say, "You will never afford me." Before its gaze, she felt beaten down again.

She asked to see Mr. Turner, and while she waited a long time, she looked at his picture with Bill Clinton. Two sleazy snakes, she thought. Finally, the local snake came out. "Yes ma'am. How can I help you?"

Inez pulled the papers out of her handbag. "I came to undo these papers."

He glanced around. "Come into my office."

As she sat down under the elk's head, she noticed the white around its mouth, as if they had preserved even its last foaming gasp.

The room in these scenes is the same. What is different is the perspectives of the characters. But in describing the room, we give our readers insight into our characters. This is a great exercise to illustrate how setting works. Now, you do one.

The creation of setting is just one of the tools in a writer's toolbox. Learn them all in the series of six workshops offered by the Community Writing Program of the Writers' Colony. See the full schedule at For more information, contact Alison at or 479 292-3665.

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Alison Taylor-Brown directs the Community Writing Program at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, which provides creative residencies for writers of all genres, composers, and artists. More than 850 writers from 44 countries have created at the Colony since its founding in 1999. Her column appears on the first and third Tuesdays.

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