May 14, 2020
For movies and television shows, a huge amount of time is put into set dressing, adding all the tiny details that make the world you see on the screen feel real. Set dressers pull from huge prop collections, but they also go shopping for new items that will give the sets for the show or movie exactly the right mood, as well as including items that are essential for the plot of the movie or show to work. So set dressing is both extremely practical (the items needed for the plot) and aesthetic (the items for mood).
Props and Background Items
As writers, part of the worldbuilding process is including all the elements that will make each setting stir the senses of the reader while also inspiring the proper mood and helping to move the plot forward. Sometimes the items in our set building won't show their importance until later in the story, and we only include them early to keep their later use from feeling too convenient. For instance, if late in the story I need a character to have a sharp pencil so she can poke a hole through something in order to escape, I will need to be certain the appearance of that pencil in the necessary moment feels real so that the reader won't be distracted by the question of why there is this convenient pencil in this unlikely setting.
Because set dressing is so important, I often go "shopping" for my own sets in the stories and novels I write. I'll actually search for elements online and save pictures to a file so I can mentally imagine the bedroom of my main character right down to the rocket lamp at his bedside that his grandmother gave him for Christmas when he was five, one he treasures but that sometimes embarrasses him whenever friends see it. In that case, I'll have a photo squirreled away of exactly the lamp I imagine so when I refer to it, I'm doing so consistently and with the kind of detail that makes the piece strengthen the reality of the scene. If he touches it, I know exactly how it switches on. I know the feel of the ceramic that makes up the rocket. The item is real for me, so I can make it real for my reader.
Set Dressing as Exposition
According to Winnie the Pooh, “When you see someone putting on his big boots, you can be pretty sure that an adventure is going to happen.” As we write, we need to think about the way items can signal specific things for the reader. For example, when I'm thinking about my character's desk, I can mention the ratty Easter basket that holds her collection of stress balls. Using an old Easter basket to hold her collection says something different about her than using a cardboard box or using a ceramic bowl. The items in the basket matter as well.
When I'm making my set dressing decisions, I'm constantly asking myself why? Why did she keep that old Easter basket? It was ugly when she got it and look at it now. Maybe it’s the last one she ever got because she’d been told she’d outgrown Easter baskets or maybe it was the last because of a change in her family’s finances. Why does she collect stress balls? Maybe she's the nervous sort who enjoys squeezing them or maybe they're a reminder of how she and her dad went to home shows twice a year where he'd plan his next remodeling project, and she'd collect a bag full of giveaways from the tables. Now when she misses him the most, she'll grab one and squeeze it, remembering the feeling of squeezing his hand as they'd walk into those shows, eager to see what loot she'd acquire. Once I make a decision about why, the object becomes a shorthand for a whole mini story whenever I want to remind the reader of that relationship.
Set Dressing and Action
One of the reasons so many writers create scenes that are simply talking heads with no action or sensory detail is from a lack of attention to scene building. It's difficult to remember to have your character interact with the world around them when you haven't built a world around them. When you put the time into building a real world around your character, then sensory detail and action comes very naturally.
For instance, if you create a scene in a cave but don't really imagine the cave in a real way, it's easy to write a very unrealistic scene made up mostly of conversation. When you think about it, though, would you really be likely to have long, meandering conversations in such an exciting location? Instead, you'd investigate. You'd notice the sharp scent of wet limestone. You'd walk carefully on the damp, uneven cave floor, painfully aware of the sharp drop when you pass deep, dark crevasses. You'd use your flashlight or lantern to push against the darkness, but shadows would lurk everywhere, inviting scary imaginings. You'd reach out to grab rocks as you pass and the cold would ache in the bones in your hand. The sound of dripping would be ridiculously loud in the absolute quiet of the cave, and if you speak, you'd whisper because there is something alarming about all that quiet. In other words, everything about being in a cave should color a scene set in a cave.
Now, it's fairly easy to imagine all the elements in an exotic setting like a cave, but every scene you're in has things for the characters to interact with. Every setting constrains the character in some way. School hallways are narrow, frequently crowded, full of questionable odors, and bound by rules. Houses can be stuffed with personal items that affect how you move through the rooms.
Think about it in your own home. As an exercise, walk through your home and consider what is actually there, all the things that familiarity has caused you to pass unnoticed a million times. Notice the floor under your feet. Does it feel different from room to room? What if you take your shoes off, are you more aware of the different floors now? Make a note of odors. Certainly the trash can have a strong odor, as can overly scented candles or room freshening sprays. One thing I've often done is made notes of different cooking smells. You will find your descriptions are much richer and more evocative if you make notes like that when you're encountering them in the real world.
World Building Details and Fans
The choices you make in your worldbuilding can be incredibly important to avid fans. Through the years, an astonishing number of people have drawn maps of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings or drawn up floor plans for Hogwarts. And a book doesn't need to be a huge hit to inspire fans. Years ago, I was hired to write a book for a company to give away to entice children to join a craft club. The book, Wellspring of Magic, went on to inspire a game challenge where participants built the houses from the story in a computer game called The Sims. This challenge happened with no instigation from me or the publisher, but fans took it seriously and scoured the books for clues about how each house looked and was laid out.
Because fans are going to take your worldbuilding so seriously, you need to do so as well. You need to be certain that the school in your town is a consistent distance from the main character's house throughout the entire story. If he does his homework on the bus everyday while making the long, boring trip to school, in a moment of crisis he wouldn’t be able to run out of the school and manage to zip home in minutes. A long bus ride doesn't equate to a short run, and readers will notice. And when they notice they'll put it in reviews, so it's good to be careful. People are watching more closely than you think!
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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