Master storyteller Jennifer Manuel: Technique #001: Setting as Character!


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Jennifer Manuel is a gifted storyteller. In fact, not one, but two of her stories won the SIWC Storyteller Award this year ($1000 and publication!). While she’s a writer who has many tools in her toolbox, one of her strengths is using setting as a character. The time she has spent in “the farthest northern and western corners of British Columbia,” as mentioned in her bio, especially her teaching experiences in Kyuquot, has a clear influence on the tales she tells.

One of her techniques that I greatly admire is how she uses setting as a character in her writing. Let’s examine a few examples from “The Woman in the Box with the Baby.”

An eleven-year-old girl, Candice is “going to the island with the fossils to find the woman in the box with the baby because there might be treasure inside.” This line appears in the very first paragraph, and because the girl is taking a rickety canoe out there all by herself, it creates instant pathos. Readers don’t want anything terrible to happen to her. But look at the conditions she is facing:

“Whoever’s been carving that log into a boat hasn’t finished yet, so the inside is rough and shallow and barely cradles little Candice. It’s more like a narrow raft on which she sits hunched with her knobby knees ben skyward, the splashes of water from the carved paddle running in rivulets down her bare legs and bare feet. The blade of the paddle is not much wider than the handle. When Candice pulls it through the water it looks about as practical as stirring a pot of fish head soup with a needle.”

Notice the contrast between the rough, unfinished canoe, and Candice’s “bare legs and bare feet.” Also, because the canoe is not dug out completely, her knobby knees poke far out of it and the water coursing off the paddle runs down her legs. We can imagine the extreme effort she has to make in order to push forward just a little bit. The canoe and the water between her and the island are worthy antagonists.

A little later, “The wind picks up, lifting and chopping the dark ocean into triangles….It starts to rain, soaking into the girl’s sweatshirt….The canoe wobbles from side to side.”

It seems as though the elements are combining forces against her…wind and rain and what amounts to little more than a crude raft in crazy conditions that are worsening by the moment.

She’s followed by her teacher to the island, and once they both reach shore, the setting’s severity becomes even more evident:

“The tide has started to lift the boats, grinding them on the pebbles, slipping them in and out of the foamy water. The anchor chain clinks and rattles against the large rocks fractured into patterns of perfect rectangles. It tightens and slackens as the ocean tries to coax the boats away.”

The sentences above are a great example of why good writers “hear” their words in their head or even read them aloud. Let’s look at the SOUNDS in that short passage:

First of all, the tide is personified, and it’s clearly causing trouble. The cacophony—hard b’s and d’s and k’s, p’s and t’s—bring that toughness to light:BoaTs, GrinDing them on the PeBBles….The anKor chain KlinKs and raTTles aGainsT the large roKs fraKTureD inTo PaTTerns of PerfeKT reKTanGles.” I’m making the hard sounds obvious by quoting sounds and not letters, and it makes the harsh effect even more obvious, hopefully.

Now look at other sounds working together here, including the assonance and consonance of “grindING” and “slippING”; “tightENZ” and “slackENZ.” We hear “o” sounds in “the Ocean tries to cOax the bOats,” and there’s alliteration with “Patterns of Perfect” and onomatopoeia with “clinks” and “rattles.” Careful attention to sounds and sound devices can breathe life into a description, especially one involving setting. It adds to voice, and voice is achieved through careful word choice, and the voice here is one of a poet, Jennifer Manuel. (Did you notice the parallelism in her story between the “triangles of water” and “rectangles of rock”?)

Let’s look at one more example:

“Miss Royston knows she can’t stop a child willing to walk into the woods in bare feet but she can’t fail to keep a child safe either. So she climbs over the rocks, parts the dripping curtains of cedar, and steps through the tangle of shrubs into the murky light of the rainforest. Like the closing of a window, the ragged branches spring back and deaden the sounds of wind and rain behind her. In front of her, the girl treads over layers of life and decay, over Bracken ferns and the brown caps of mushrooms, over the rotten log homes of mice and chipmunks.”

See what I mean? Here, Manuel brings in the hard sounds again, together with the forest floor, the bare feet, the death and decay as the girl makes her way to find two dead bodies in a makeshift coffin. The setting grips you, tugs you into the story, holds you while you experience what the young girl experiences herself.

The setting becomes just as important as any character, and that’s quite a challenge for any writer. In the hands of master storyteller Jennifer Manuel, it’s just one of many ways she engages her audience.


Try this:

Imagine a place with tough conditions. Now create a goal—something that will force a character to move through that space slowly. Use any or all of the techniques you’ve read about above, and WRITE THE SCENE!

Nancy Zrymiak

Excellent article. I loved reading Jennifer’s stories too and the way you have analyzed the writing/technique is interesting. I will have to pay more attention to “setting as character” in my own writing!

Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it’s always inspiring to learn technique from great writing. I’ll be a lifelong student and will continue my “dissections” of others’ work!

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