David Morrell On the Key to Settings

In his CraftFest session at ThrillerFest, “Setting: How to Make Your Novel Go Places,” David Morrell (author of First Blood) riffed on how to produce fantastic settings that become characters in their own right.
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In his CraftFest session at ThrillerFest, “Setting: How to Make Your Novel Go Places,” David Morrell (author of First Blood) riffed on how to produce fantastic settings that become characters in their own right.


Morrell pointed out that settings are seldom talked about, and often receive short shrift in comparison to other craft elements. But they shouldn’t. Think of Hemingway. What immediately comes to mind is Key West; Havana; Paris—“Places he wrote about, and when he wrote about them, seemed to own them.” Consider Faulkner’s deep South. Wharton’s old New York. In Morrell’s opinion, there’s a lot to be said for choosing a location and mining it for everything it can give you.

So what’s the key to crafting distinct, rich, truly alive settings in your work?

“What we need to do is forget about sight, and concentrate on feeling,” Morrell said.

Hemingway would describe a scene so you would feel it as if you were really there.

Morrell cited novelist John Barth’s method of “triangulation”—you take the sense of sight for granted, and add two other senses from among the remaining four.

When sight alone is used, Morrell said that’s what causes a piece of writing to seem “flat” or “one dimensional.” (He added that movies have conditioned writers to think that that is storytelling.

So you triangulate. But it’s not easy—Morrell said emphasizing the other senses is difficult to do in a first draft, especially when you’re new to the craft. “The flaw of an amateur is to assume what’s in our head is what’s on the page.”

But you can tackle it in revision.

One example: Morrell said that if you were to write, “The boy walked up the hill,” most people would picture just that: A boy walking up a hill. But consider the other sensory details you could include: Is it a hot day? Is it windy? If it’s fall, does the grass crunch underfoot?

“This is the simplest device I know of for creating vivid writing,” Morrell said.

Morrell also advised performing firsthand research—venturing out to experience what you need to experience to be able to write vividly and accurately. Develop a habit of asking yourself what the most identifiable sense tied to a place would be. For instance, if you’re writing about an emergency room—“the sharp, biting smell of astringents.” (Morrell always tends toward odor because “it’s the most intimate of the senses.”)

He added that an entire scene can take on a new life if you add just a word here and there—assuming, of course, it’s the right word.

--Watch for balance and clarity of POV characters. Is it obvious who’s speaking?

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