Setting the Stage

James Scott Bell


We all know the importance of details in fiction. Whether it’s the description of a place or person, the details should always do “double duty.” They ought to go beyond the mere painting of a picture and contribute to the mood you’re trying to create.

When you set up your story world, this is especially important, for the following reasons:

* Setting helps establish the fictive dream

Details make or break verisimilitude. Lisa Scottoline sets her books in her native Philadelphia for just that reason. “You can really help support a character if you understand the setting,” she said in a Time interview. “So for that reason I generally write about Philadelphia. My experience is that people extrapolate it. If you write specifically enough, they extrapolate it to their hometown, wherever that is, even if it’s Amsterdam. By the same token, if you don’t write specifically enough and you have generic Anywhere U.S.A., then nobody feels anything. The whole bottom drops out of the story.”

• Setting establishes motifs

You are wasting an opportunity if you do not find motifs in your settings. A motif is a distinctive visual that repeats. Like the green light in The Great Gatsby. It carries symbolic weight and deepens the reading experience.

For L.A. writers such as myself, the city provides a wealth of these icons. One of my favorites is Angels Flight. Allow me to riff on it just a bit.

Angels Flight is a funicular railroad (two cars going up and down in balance) that was built in 1901. It was to bring the folks living in the fashionable burb of Bunker Hill down a steep grade to the shopping area of Los Angeles. That saved them a long walk down and up steps, or getting the horse and buggy all rigged. For a penny, you could ride the cars.

Bunker Hill began to fade as the years went on. Post WWII, especially, it became a place of run down tenements and flophouses for cons and criminals to gather. But Angels Flight remained right there on 3rd Street, doing its thing.

It was going to be torn down in the late 50s, a victim of redevelopment. But a grass roots movement sprang up to save the old girl. My dad, an L.A. lawyer, was part of this. He even brought his young son downtown to ride on it in front of news cameras and the L.A. Times.

So, in a small way, I helped save Angels Flight. The city preserved it, moved it half a block south, and reopened it. An unfortunate accident took it offline for several years, but earlier this year it started running again.

I have used Angels Flight in a novel of the same name. This novel was mentioned in a great pictorial history of Angels Flight by Jim Dawson. Several film noirs have featured it over the years.

If you’re ever in downtown L.A., take a ride. You catch it on Hill Street, between 3rd and 4th, directly across from the Grand Central Market. Up at the top you can get a great view of the city of angels.

Talk about your settings. Do you have a favorite? Do you visit your locations and purposely work in the details?

Here’s a short trip on Angels Flight for your viewing pleasure.

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