Recently I took to watching the first episodes of the TV drama, Breaking Bad. Like millions of other viewers, I was hooked from the get-go by high school teacher Walter White’s slide into nail-biting crime and corruption. For those not familiar with the show, here’s a brief recap: Diagnosed with lung cancer, Walter embarks on a mission to leave a nest egg for his growing family by using his chemistry skills to manufacture high quality crystal meth. The decision has Walter selling his soul as he rubs shoulders with drug lords, sleazy lawyers, and law-enforcers bent on halting an influx of the finest, purest meth available anywhere.
In his acceptance speech at the recent Golden Globes, actor Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White, thanked the foreign press with tongue-in-cheek praise for its part in spreading the “mirth and merriment” of Breaking Bad around the globe. The series is anything but light-hearted. Dark and sombre, the show takes viewers on an intense ride down shadowy corridors.
Watching the first episodes, I couldn’t help but admire Breaking Bad’s clever scriptwriting and equally clever photography. The story takes place in New Mexico. Albuquerque and its surroundings are Walter White’s playground. The location is central to the storyline, and the desert terrain is as much a character in the story as Walter White or any of his druggy cohorts. The stark landscape echoes Walter’s feelings of isolation as he romps with the fringes of society, edging ever further away from the approval of those closest to him. It’s hard to imagine the story having the same impact if the location was switched to, say bustling New York City or to the mountains and streams of B.C.
Setting is one of those features of story writing that often gets less play that it should. Setting roots readers in the worlds writers create and gives characters a place to interact. But, as with the rolling desert in Breaking Bad, setting can be more than just a backdrop for action. At its best, setting can be a living, breathing component that advances the story’s pace, mood, meaning, characterization and theme.
For a working definition of setting, I favour the one Courtney Carpenter gives in her Writer’s Digest article “Discover the Basic Elements of Setting in a Story” (May 2, 2012):
Broadly defined setting is the location of the plot, including the region, geography, climate, neighbourhood, buildings and interiors. Setting, along with pacing, also suggests passage of time. Place is layered into every scene and flashback, built of elements such as weather, lighting, the season, and the hour.”
Here are three Breaking Bad techniques that writers might adapt to put setting at the forefront of their stories:
While it’s important to anchor readers in time and place, writing a large block of description is equivalent to “telling” rather than “showing”. Too much detail tempts readers to fast forward through dull, information-filled sections in search of more thrilling action. In Breaking Bad, characters interact with setting as scenes unfold. When Walter strolls through his house we see the lamp on the table, the couch in front of the TV, the cold pizza on the kitchen counter. Revealing setting through the actions of the characters and scattering them through a scene breaks the details into bite-sized, easily digested pieces.
In Breaking Bad, lingering long shots of the landscape and extreme close-ups of key objects mark transitions of time, place and mood. For example, when the location changes from the comfortable classroom where Walter teaches by day to the angst-filled house where Walter joins his family at night, we see a shot of the house’s exterior from across the lamp-lit street. Immediately we know that hours have passed, the location has changed and so has the story’s tone. As writers we can use similar techniques. A line or two of embedded detail about setting – the writer’s equivalent to the filmmaker’s long shot or close-up – can quickly transport readers across time and place.
By multiplying sensory input
Breaking Bad heightens tension with clever combinations of sensory input. Often it’s the subtle notes that pull us into the story. We see a close-up of a parched plant in the desert, for example, and for long seconds we hear almost nothing – just the whisper of the wind. The sight of a single, wilted plant coupled with the lonely wind emphasizes the isolation of Walter’s life, and, for a moment at least, we feel a tinge of sympathy for the man.
As writers we have a large bag of sensory tricks at our disposal; not just seeing and hearing, but also smell, touch and taste. In her article Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life, Moira Allen discusses how different types of sensory details trigger different responses. Visual input appeals to the reader’s intellect. Sounds and touches evoke emotional responses. Smells and tastes draw up memories (think of the ‘smell of baking’ that reminds of your childhood).
Characters are influenced by weather, temperature, lighting, and other tangible factors that fall under the umbrella we call setting. By combining sensory details, we heighten the reader’s experience and influence the tone, mood, and atmosphere of our story.