Monday, April 19, 2010

Setting as Character

Saw the first two eps TREME on HBO last night, and it's an excellent lesson in how a setting can become the main character in a piece. In this case, the city of New Orleans, three months after Katrina.

The first shots of the show are all close ups - a man's lips near a saxaphone reed, feathers, a kid's face, shoes dancing... then we widen to see men in a darkened room discussing the first "second line" to take place after the storm. (Turns out the "second line" is a type of parade.) Pretty soon, men in suits are warming up their trumpets and banging on drums, a man climbs to the roof of a car to dance, sipping on a cold drink as he does so... and in that sea of faces, in the beat of the music, we feel the heartbeat of New Orleans.

Note the technique - start with colorful details, then pull back for a larger picture. This can really work in writing a novel too. They key is to pick out details that really evoke the uniqueness of your setting. Be as specific as possible.

My only caveat is - don't rely solely on the depth and richness of the setting to carry your piece. In TREME, we also get a lot of humor and depth of character in the people we meet. We're so busy getting to know these people and this fascinating place that we don't mind the slowness of the early plotting. If it's anything like THE WIRE (same writer/producers) the plot will pick up soon, and we'll know the characters and setting so well, that we will be utterly invested in the outcome.

I'm already researching cool bars in New Orleans, food, and visiting the sites of musicians featured on the show. A great setting can be a gift to your readers, as long as it's appropriate for your writerly intentions.

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