Choosing Your Setting Versus Setting Your Scene

On one of my writing listservs, the question came up about alternate
locations to avoid clichés. There are several writing books that
mention no kitchen, no coffee shops, no bars, no whatever.

The point of those mentions is not so much the setting as that these places
tend to have low potential for conflict. The characters are most often sitting
down and musing over things with their friends.

There are obvious exceptions where the scene plays on that very expectation of
calm. A scene can clash with that expectation through outright battles or
calm, cold fury, for example, but the cautions are less about the location
(though some things are cliché, a unique take can fix that) than about
having on-screen characters doing things that don’t promote conflict. The one
rule of writing that holds up regardless of style, process, or even genre is
“Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader.” A scene that reviews events, catalogs the
mundane, or focuses on minute details with no greater purpose does just that.

Personally, my muse has a perverse response to statements against specific
locations because they sometimes fail to include the why and just charge the
setting with responsibility for the reader’s boredom.

For example, having tea was nixed by one book, so I wrote about a betrayed
wife who set out a tea for her husband then hung his lover’s underwear on her
chair back and added some Drano to his cup before walking out on him.

It doesn’t take much to turn the most blah “catching up” type scene into one
fraught with emotion as long as you’re aware of the danger.

My solution is to focus less on a checklist of scene places and more on making
the events within that scenery so compelling that the scenery itself matters
only as a backdrop, or a supporting cast.

Who’s willing to join me on this side of perverse? What would you envision for
a scene to turn sighs at a cliché location into thundering applause? Or
maybe you just want to flag a scene from one of your favorite authors who blew
the prohibition on these settings out of the water?

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4 Responses to Choosing Your Setting Versus Setting Your Scene

  1. You can also add interest to some potentially cliched setting by cashing in on their intimacy. A kitchen can be as intimate as a bedroom sometimes, when it comes to exchanging confidences. Hidden fears, angers, uncertainties, confessions… all kinds of things that can further the plot, add to the complications, up the ante might come spilling out in the quiet intimacy of the kitchen. Sometimes working together in a kitchen with someone is almost as good as a campfire for diving deep (if they’re just going to sit with cuppas, then you better have something really juicy planned for the conversation). If your characters really have something to say that is interesting to readers and furthers your plot, there’s nothing wrong with saying it in a kitchen (or wherever such dialogue might be logical). If they don’t really, it doesn’t matter where you put them. That’s my gut reaction tonight anyway….

    • MarFisk says:

      Exactly. That’s taking advantage of the setting and messing with reader expectations, though how they can have quiet expectations of a kitchen…Just not my experience I guess :).

      Besides, the potential for violence is huge with all those plates to smash not to mention the knives and fire. Just think of all those movie fight scenes that rumble through industrial kitchens.

      • Shades of The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss the Girls has an incredibly violent and suspenseful kitchen scene near the end, too.

        Yes, kitchens can be lethal, all those sharp things and power tools, not to mention the odd rolling pin, pestle, cast-iron frypan, hot food and oil, etc. LOL… I have most of my sharp knives on a magnet rack over the stove, and it’s a big collection. Before we had the bamboo shade over the top part of the window and the plants and knick-knacks below that, it used to look extremely lethal from the road at night.

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