Sunday, September 7, 2008

Craft of Writing: Cliched Settings

You know that characters can be cliche and dialogue can be cliche, but you may wonder at the term "cliched setting." I recently critiqued a story about a writer and the young man he befriends. The character of the writer could easily have been a cliche, but he wasn't. There were nuances to his personality that made him interesting. Same with the young man. The only problem I had was that much of the story took place in the writer's study, a room "lined with dark bookshelves and containing a well-crafted desk with a large leather chair"––what else?

On first read you may find that description perfectly fine. The story is, after all, about the characters and a study is a study. What more do you need?


I would like to know what makes this writer's study different than someone else's and, perhaps in that way, gain some insights into his personality. If the books line one wall, floor to ceiling, the man is a prolific reader. If they line three walls, he's insatiable. Are the books shelved in some orderly fashion or just radomly? Is there a book open on the table? If so, what is it? Are there several books open implying more than one being read at the same time? And what exactly does the term "well-crafted" mean when describing the desk? Is it antique? Does it have carving? Is the desk messy or clear? Does it hold a laptop? An old fashioned typewriter? A pad and pencil?

I'm not saying the description should include all of these a la Thomas Hardy, but just like no person is exactly like another, no setting is exactly the same either, and especially when it comes to offices and studies, there is no such thing as generic. These places give us important clues to character's personalities and can help us avoid awkward dialogue and description we would otherwise have to rely on.

Another cliched setting is your generic city. Just as it is a mistake to set your stories in places you've never been, like L.A. or New York, because it sounds more interesting, it's also a mistake to set your piece in "any city USA," because there is no such place. Each city has its own unique type of structures. The weather varies. The housing varies, and some cities, like Santa Fe, don't feel like cities at all, but more like small towns. These differences also imbue cities with their own personalities. Miss that and you've passed up a great opportunity to add depth to your work.

Despite the reputation, even those ubiquitous suburbs are not all alike. Some "first suburbs" have almost become extensions of the cities they surround. Others comprise development after development of Levittown-like tract houses. And others, like where I live outside of Philadelphia, are ex-urbs where fields that grew corn just a couple of decades ago, now grow MacMasions.

It's never a good idea to stop the narrative and drag the reader into a long detailed description of a setting, but just a few details can add depth and richness to your writing, tell us something about your characters, and, more important, not feel cliched.

1 comment:

Judith Fitzgerald said...

Excellent observation, N.C. Now, if that desk had contained a shrunken head with a Rosary draped over it or a pair of bronzed army boots topped with a ballcap and a slice of apple pie respectively, it may have justified the otherwise nondescript setting (we've seen too many times to believe).


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