A smile formed on Callie’s face at the sight of Tom. It had been so long.
“Welcome by to the land of the living,” she said.
“It’s good to be back. What have you been doing in my absence? I hope you managed to keep out of trouble.”
“Of course, what do you think?”
She willed him to take her hand, to look deeply into her eyes. There had to be something between them after all they’d been through together.
Touching scene, except that it’s hard to follow in our mind’s eye because it’s not grounded. Callie and Tom are two characters floating in no particular time or space. We have trouble visualizing the interaction without supporting place.
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When our son was in Peru some years ago, he sent us an email to describe Lima. One of his sentences still forms pictures in my mind:
“The houses looked like a kid had gone crazy with a box of crayons.”
Setting is as important as character, in fact, there are times when the setting is a character. Consider Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. What would the story be without the image of the cottage on the cliff, or the unique house in Australia, or the attic room? And how about Jan Karon’s beloved Mitford series? Setting is the canvas on which the characters move; it affects who they are and how they interact with one another, and sometimes it’s a life force in itself (think Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher).
Besides being a visual background for the story, setting can also provide direction and momentum for the plot. My Storm Series is set in South Russia at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In this case, the setting is the essence of the plot. The characters act in accordance to what’s happening around them.
So setting is a grounding factor, a motivator, a character, an influence. It is also colour.
Description can add depth to a story, as long as the depiction is woven into the whole without distracting from the other elements. A novel must end up as a seamless whole.
I read a story recently—Assassin’s Trap—that left me in awe of the author’s skill at describing her settings. I could have sworn D.C. Shaftoe had visited every place she used in her remarkable story.