Setting That Works
How Memorable Setting Can Advance Plot, Reveal Character, Echo Theme, and More
In my first novel — Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher. — my protagonist, Tomas Zamara, the mayor of Albuquerque, takes a hike with his new woman, the radiant and volatile Tory Singer, who came to New Mexico for a retreat in the desert because she wanted to start a new life.
It’s 2008, and Tomas is just beginning his role as New Mexico chair of the John McCain for president campaign. Five years earlier, the mayor’s wife Vera disappeared. A lawyer, she had represented some ruthless people connected to the Mexican drug cartel, and the speculation was that she was murdered because of that connection.
For most of that five years, Tomas held on to hope that she was still alive, and even though he was handsome and charismatic, he had not even gone on a date with another woman. But as the novel starts, he meets Tory, and they have intense chemistry. Tomas is reserved — they’ve kissed, but no sex yet.
He takes her to one of his favorite places — Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico — where there are dramatic narrow slot canyons in bright red and gold and orange and remains of native cliff dwellings. They’ve turned onto a narrow side trail next to a quiet creek.
It’s a gorgeous day. They’re gabbing, laughing, teasing. Suddenly, the blue sky disappears behind storm clouds, then comes thunder and lightning, then rain, then hail, then a flash flood.
First the water is around their ankles, then higher, and they run, and Tory trips and falls in the churning water, and she’s frightened and immobile and Tomas has to be a hero. He helps her climb up a steep canyon wall to higher ground. They make it to a ledge above the flooding canyon, but it’s raining hard and they’re freezing. They find their way into an old cave, where the native Pueblo people used to live, and they’re shivering, and Tomas, a boy scout, knows that one way to warm up if you have hypothermia is to take your wet clothes off and get your bodies close. They end up making love on the floor of the cave.
The dramatic events of the environment do double duty to reveal their characters. Tory is frightened and Tomas has to take charge in order to save them. Later, in the cave, she initiates the lovemaking and he resists at first, but as she says to him, your body is not resisting.
So we have a dramatic scene that could only happen in this setting, this slot canyon. The lovemaking advances their relationship to a new level. Already, the setting is doing a lot of work pushing the story forward.
Then, a chapter later, bones of Tomas’ disappeared wife are discovered in a wash — that’s where the book title, Bones in the Wash, comes from. The same flash flood that Tomas and Tory escaped from washed up a skeleton in a nearby canyon.
The slot canyon setting and the flash flood have also jumpstarted the plot. Now comes a murder investigation and, as the husband, Tomas is a prime suspect.
It’s unusual to be able do this much with your setting — to reveal characters, advance the relationship, and introduce a murder mystery to the story. I’ve tried to replicate this kind of chapter, and haven’t been able to. It’s an excellent example of a “setting that works.”
‘Setting That Works’ Workshop on October 15
The primary job of setting, of course, is still most important — to immerse readers in the scene. So they can visualize it, feel it, smell it. They are there with your characters. There are going to be times when the setting does nothing more and that’s fine.
The most memorable and effective setting is more than a pretty, or gritty description. It’s lean and strong because it’s working hard. Doing two or more jobs. Not just showing the reader where the story is taking place, but also advancing your plot, unifying various elements of your story, revealing character, echoing theme, setting mood, and more.
On October 15, I will be leading a “Setting That Works” workshop for BAIPA. Earlier this year, we talked at board meetings and member meetings about whether to offer writing craft presentations in addition to our publishing and marketing presentations. We polled the members, and members said yes, but let’s limit it to workshops. This is our first writing craft workshop. I hope you’ll join me.
I will go over eight different “jobs” setting can do — advance the story, define and/or reveal character(s), echo theme, establish rules, unify the story, and more. The focus will be on fiction and memoir, but will be relevant for narrative nonfiction as well.
The workshop includes a brief writing exercise — I will ask participants to write two to five sentences of setting, incorporating the ideas from the workshop. We will read some of the setting examples and work together to try and make them better.
One last thing. If you sign up (here) , I urge you to come to the workshop with an example or two of a book where the setting resonates for you. And why.
Below is a flyer from four years ago, when I presented this workshop for the first time. You also may be interested in this 2019 interview with CWC-Berkeley’s Cristina Deptula — “Setting That Works: an Interview with John Byrne Barry.”