As writers, we usually have a unique perspective for life in general. We see everything -- every human interaction, every observation of the physical world around us -- through a lens of how this outside sensory information can be internalized and used in a story. We are constantly on the lookout for...well, for words basically. No, we aren't usually greeted every morning with a script from the cat or lines of description from the view outside the window, but we know they -- the words -- are out there, raw materials that just haven't been processed yet. Or, to draw on a word often used in science, information waiting to be synthesized.
This does kind of make us sound like robots, I guess! Of course, we are not. Robots can't interpret emotion or make an analogy between static objects. But they can string together an incredible amount of information in individual bits and pieces, and it's up to us to give meaning and purpose to them and make connections. We do this in all our plotting, but it's especially needed in building a setting.
As my theatre class nears its end, my last role in a group project has been as a set designer. Right off the top of my head, I'd say, from a writer's perspective, that what I've learned by creating a setting is much more about the collective rather than strictly individual elements of telling a story.
I wasn't necessarily enthused to tackle setting, however. Set design? I read the assignment and groaned. "The set designer will put together a sketch of the groundplan (not to scale) and a list of set props needed for the show. They will also provide five pieces of visual materials (photos, video stills, sketches) that will help to describe their vision. Pay attention to the color palette of the show."
The word "sketch" is what had me groan. Sketch? As in DRAW? *sputtering* "But...but...I can't draw!" (Yes, you can see that by my actual sketch of the groundplan. Let me remind you of the words "not to scale.")
But I made the attempt, albeit with much frustration when the "vision" in my head did not match reality! Hmm, a very familiar experience to writing actually...
By "vision," however, the instructor didn't mean the reality of the drawing. After I finished beating up my artistic ability, I could explore this more fully. My little notes, which you can see in the drawing, are elements from the plot. The play, by the way, was Susan Glaspell's "Trifles." My notes, of this gloomy (hey, I got that mood right artistically!) farmhouse set in about 1910 or so, point out things like disrepair and incomplete work and atmosphere: "faded wallpaper," "dirty pots and pans under sink," dirty kitchen towels," "snowy view of hill."
These details are clues in a murder mystery revolving around two characters who are never shown on stage. If you have read the play, you might know its a one act play which takes place the day after a neighbor discovered John Wright has been murdered in his bed by strangulation. Mrs. Wright was found rocking in her rocking chair. Five characters, three men and two women arrive; the men to investigate the murder, while the women are merely along to pick up clothing for Mrs. Wright, now in jail. The men, a county attorney, a sheriff and the neighbor look for motive for the murder, but are unsuccessful. It is the women, wives of the sheriff and the neighbor, who discover the motive in items the men dismiss as "trifles" or messy housekeeping.
As the women explore the absent woman's home, these details of domestic routines ultimately lead to the discovery of a bent bird cage inside the cabinet, which leads the women to discover a strangled bird inside Mrs. Wright's sewing work basket. The motive becomes clear, along with a piecing together of a miserable life of isolation and the transformation of the once lively Mrs. Wright. Ultimately, the empathy the women feel toward Mrs. Wright lead them to hide the evidence.
As a set designer, it became my job to decide how these set pieces revealed the character of Mrs. Wright, established background and revealed the murder mystery. And while the play described the setting in detail in stage direction of the play, there was room to decide which items to emphasize or change. For instance a jug (on the stove shelf) or the brightly colored quilt and "treasure chest" in the forefront were not described but were in line with my "vision." And inside this trunk, there are more of Mrs. Wright's beautiful, but hidden things; a fancy hat, a bright blue dress, a fancy keepsake box. (No, I'm not making another sketch of these contents. Clip art and pictures are wonderful things!)
As I worked on the setting details, a complete "missing scene" of what might have happened leading up to the murder of Mr. Wright took form. Perhaps the incomplete work were signs of Mrs. Wright being interrupted. Perhaps Mr. Wright, who financially ruled the household without an allowance for extravagances (not even for curtains), came home unexpectedly. Perhaps Mrs. Wright, who normally hid her treasures and covered the bird cage to keep her bird from singing, had all her pretty things out. This enraged Mr. Wright and culminated in the act of Mr. Wright killing her bird, her only companion. In the play's text, Mrs. Hale notices the erratic sewing stitches in Mrs. Wright's quilting, which could have happened during or following this act.
So my vision is complete, including an explanation in my mind of how Mrs. Wright could have overpowered Mr. Wright to strangle him in his sleep. It would seem likely, although never speculated upon in the play, that Mr. Wright might have drank too much, which made him incapacitated. Hence, the moonshine jug inconspicuously added to the setting.
Of interest and help to me in consideration of setting was also this article an "Analysis of Setting in Trifles," by Rebecca Search, which further explores the symbolism of its setting.
Each detail of setting connects to the plot. Perhaps the audience (or a reader) might not draw on or realize each significance, but as a writer each item can be full with meaning and purpose. With this experience, I'm looking forward to drawing (however badly!) my own story settings for a scene or two. Who knows what might be revealed?
How do you envision your settings or connect your setting elements to plot?
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