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The Psychology of Setting

by author Jacqueline Sheehan

As writers of narrative, it’s easy to get so caught up with character and plot that we sometimes lose track of where our stories take place, why it matters, and how we might use that place in order to amplify the tension in our stories, develop character psychology, create mood and fully engage the reader. 

Without a skillful use of setting, writers are left with talking heads, bobbing around the atmosphere, or a plot that might take place anywhere.  But with a deep psychological sense of setting, we can connect our characters (and readers) to a more complex and nuanced world. For example, think of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. (Or think of any book that Charles Dickens wrote; he was the master of setting.) The tragic Miss Havisham is profoundly illuminated by the fraying lace, by the cobwebs streaming around a room trapped in time. Dickens could have said, “Miss Havisham clung to the past. She was left at the altar.” But the use of a vivid and compelling setting gave us a portrait of her wound, her conflict and her deteriorating interior life. Nicely done, Charles.

In my novel, Picture This, I endowed an abandoned house with characteristics of sadness, longing, and hope. The floorboards creak to entice one special potential buyer. Doors stick expectantly when a devious character invades. The house emits a welcoming light, but only to particular people. In the end, the house is rewarded by love and purpose again, in a way that resonates with the main character’s needs and desires.

Untangling the psychology of a story’s setting is not only essential to ground a reader in time and space; well-chosen setting details can add rich layers of conflict, nuance and emotional depth to our writing. 

Join Jacqueline Sheehan in exploring this topic on Saturday, January 16, 9:30 am – 12:30 pm

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