This was originally published on Write Anything, October 19, 2008.
In the meantime, here’s a short primer to get you in the mood. 🙂
Setting evokes a vivid sense of place and time. It grounds the reader into your story and solidifies what is happening to your character. Setting can simply be the canvas you use to paint your story on, or it can actually BE a character in your story.
From Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop:
When and where does your story take place? Setting means a certain place at a certain time, a stage.
There is a common argument against detailed descriptions of setting: They can be outright dull. Many writers avoid laying out the setting because they fear boring their readers, but the lack of a vivid setting may in turn cause boredom. Without a strong sense of place, it’s hard to achieve suspense and excitement – which depend on the reader’s sensation of being right there, where the action takes place. When descriptions of places drag, the problem usually lies not in the setting, but in presenting the setting too slowly.
The importance of the setting could be expressed in this formula: Setting + Character = Plot. Out of a character’s relationship with the setting, or out of the character’s conflict with the setting, you get the plot (or at least a part of the plot, or a dynamic backdrop for your plot).
But the setting can be more than simply someplace for the character to hang out.
- You can have the setting as an antagonist; setting can set the groundwork for the action. For example: westerns, journey stories, nature adventure stories, detective stories, war and prison stories.
- Settings can have special effects that add to the overall mood of a story. Novakovich says, “In movies, music and landscape shots often appear as a backdrop for the action, especially to augment suspense, romance, and sometimes simply to dazzle you. The quality of photography – the selection of details, the angles of light and shadow – engage you most. In writing, we can achieve similar effects with words describing landscapes and cityscapes.”
- You can use setting to steer the reader’s expectations. A snowy night or red flakes can foreshadow bloodshed to come.
- Use setting to indicate when a scene begins and ends. You have an obligation to the reader to establish where your character is and what time of day the drama is taking place. “If you don’t tell when your action takes place, it might appear to happen in some generic time or always, as a repeated action. Unless you want that effect, indicate the days and nights,” says Novakovich.
Here are some questions to consider when writing about your setting:
- What about the setting is important? Characters will notice things that are important to them or that hold special meaning for them. Their current state of mind will also affect what they notice.
- What season is it? What kind of day within that season? Rainy? Hot? How does your character react to the weather?
- Where are the characters within the scene?
- Does your setting description match the mood of the scene?
Source: First Draft in 30 Days
Nigel Watts, Writing a Novel and Getting Published, has this to say about setting, “Characters and their actions need to be anchored in some sort of physical reality, otherwise they will lack a sense of substance. The setting of a novel is like the flour in a cake: perhaps less compelling than the nuts and dried fruit, but if you forget the flour in the recipe, you’ll have no cake.”
I know setting, for me, is one of the hardest aspects of writing. I tend to get so caught up in what my characters are doing and who they are talking to, that the setting becomes a blur, just some empty black space in the background; I’m sure my readers sense that as well. So, to make a setting real for your readers, you need to research it. Visit the place you want to set your story in. Read about it. Google it. Use any resource that you can. Watch movies that were filmed there, talk/email people who know the setting well. Read guide books (a personal favorite of mine), study street plans.
Don’t just look at the big picture, but pay attention to the details.
And don’t think you’re off the hook if your setting is imaginary. You must be prepared to answer questions about your imaginary setting or it won’t seem real to your readers.
Recreate a setting, don’t just describe it. “What the reader is seeking to do is vicariously experience what you are evoking … this means supplying them with sensory clues so they can make it real themselves. In this way, they will be able to think themselves into your skin because they will compare your experience with something similar to their own,” says Watts.
Now that you have a sense of what setting is all about, let’s try some exercises:
- Describe the town you grew up in – the streets, shops, schools, churches, rivers, bridges. Don’t mention your emotions, don’t be sentimental.
- Make a one-page list of all the objects you remember from your childhood home. Read your list and circle the objects that evoke the strongest feelings and memories of events.
- Describe with care the most ordinary items you can think of. Look at them as though they were strange and unusual.
- Describe three places you have been. Don’t use flowery language, mention the importance and some unimportant details you remember.
- Now describe some places you have worked.
- Describe a train, car or plane ride – the sensation of moving, what sounds do you hear?
- Write a scene set indoors and include the occupants in the room. What time of day is it? What’s the weather like outside?
Are you trying the exercises? Have they helped you develop an idea for your story? These may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, especially right before NaNoWriMo, but if you’re truly stuck for ideas, or setting is one of your weaknesses (*raises hand*), then give it a shot. You’ll be surprised how your creativity snaps to attention and the ideas will likely flow as quickly as your fingers.