A New Perspective on Setting

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© Rudy Dees

Jessica Slade

Intern @ GoneWithTheWord

Recently I picked up a book by one of the TedTalks most popular clips: Before Happiness by Shawn Achor. As I read through how happiness can be as simple as a matter of perspective, I realized that this is true for all perception. 

When we go somewhere new, on vacation for example, we see everything. We notice the flowers, the color of the sky, the architecture and the clothing of the people around us. We take it all in because to us it seems all new.

But when we’re back home, we often don’t see what’s right in front of us. I was recently on the subway when I saw a guy dressed up like Spiderman. Seriously, full outfit with mask and everything.

Though this was interesting, what was more interesting is the number of people who didn’t notice. Those who were lost in their music, buried in their books, or afraid to look up in case something untoward was going on that they didn’t want to have to deal with (like a pregnant or disabled person who might want their seat!)

This got me to thinking about characters and setting. What we see often says something about us and our mindset in that moment. When we’re in a negative mindset, we might see the garbage on the street and the couple fighting on the corner on our way to work. On the same day but with a positive mindset, we are more likely to notice the child squealing with delight over the leaves falling, or a businessperson smiling at some success in their head.

As writers, we need to be like a cameraperson on a movie set and use our words to zoom in on the setting details that best show the character’s perspective and mood in that moment.

If your character is Cinderella walking up the steps to the ball, what would she notice? Probably everything. This would have likely been her first time at court, first time around such abundance of wealth and power. What if it were the Wicked Stepsister? She was likely more used to the wealth and power and would have been more likely to notice the facts that were more in line with her goals or mood such as where the prince was situated or which women were more grandiose than her.

What we see and don’t see tells us a lot about who we are and what mindset we’re currently in. The same is true of your characters. So next time you’re writing a scene, don’t give paragraph after paragraph of details about the setting, pick those few details that highlight not the world itself, but rather your character’s perception of that world. It will make for tighter writing and a stronger understand of your character. 

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