Settings are a vastly important part of a novel. We’ve all heard varying advice on the subject, some think it’s more important than others, but no one will give you a pass on it altogether. The fact is that we need setting to make connections. Is this conversation you’re having done while riding horses down an easy trail? Or is it sitting at a table? Has anyone gotten up? Is anyone holding anything?
Setting can mean the difference between a scene that falls flat and one that leaps off the page, ensnaring the reader. No one wants their worlds to seem like cardboard, but how do those gifted authors make their settings so powerful? They never seem to be doing anything with the language, in fact when a master is behind it we hardly even notice it happening
That, in part, is one of the keys to writing setting well. When you do it well we shouldn’t see it in the story, it should just be there waiting for the characters to come through it. A sign of a more inexperienced writer, and we’ve all read these books, make the setting feel forced. Big blocks of text detailing everything the eye can see, and this is true with well established, even famous writers sometimes, but that doesn’t make it great writing anymore than it makes us devour each word they put on page just because so and so wrote it.
Ask yourself when you usually skim while reading, and be honest. Is it during those big blocks of nothing but descriptors? I know I do it. Luckily there are a few things to consider when writing setting that can help to keep the reader glued to the page for every word. After all, we are here to entertain, we want them to hang off every word. Poor reader engagement is liable to result in a reader putting our work down, and once they do that who knows if they’ll pick it up again.
This starts right from the conception of the scene. What is the scene going to do? What is its purpose in your story? Sometimes your scene will have to be set in a specific place because of something written earlier, but sometimes the author can put it anywhere they can imagine. So where do you put it? Consider what your scene is doing, and incorporate the setting in a way that can amplify that. Is this a fight scene? Great! Fights often move around, so if it’s outdoors maybe the terrain gets a little uneven and someone gets an advantage, write that in. Inside? Well, the sword fight on the stairs is cliche, how can you put a twist on that?
Is it a highly emotional scene? Maybe it’s a nasty break up. Your protag has been feeling stuck in a relationship for way too long, and can’t stand it anymore. There’s a screaming match, and that’s it. They’ve had enough, it’s over! Where can we have this break up? Why not in gridlock traffic? Or a commuter train? In other words, somewhere the setting can reflect how stuck your protag feels in the relationship.
Don’t be afraid to use symbolism! The sole purpose of a symbol is to pack a ton on meaning into a small package, which is great for your word count because it leaves you with more from for plot or narration instead of details. Play around with it, it’s something I’m trying to incorporate more into my own writing.
So you know where it’s happening, but how do you detail it? People have varying ideas on this as well, of course. Some people do like having every detail, and others like having the broad strokes and letting their mind fill in the rest. You’ll have to write both ways and ultimately see what you’re good at and what you prefer. Personally, I like the broad strokes with a few unique details. I like seeing a few things that would stand out, a particular smell or sound for example. Maybe the light flickers, and it pisses off the protag to no end, which brings me to the next point.
Lists of details are boring. Okay, so there is a smell. Great. It seems like rancid fish? Okay, that’s better. I know that’s gross, I can even imagine it. A character covered their mouth and fought down the urge to throw up as the smell of rotting fish took over? That’s better still, and it only gets better the more I am bonded to this character. It’s no secret that if we can bond the reader to our character they’re more willing to go with them. If they feel sickened, the reader will too, they buy in. To achieve this we need realistic, fully fleshed out characters our readers can relate to.
Luckily for us writers, we can characterize with setting too! Remember when you conceived the scene? I hope when you did this you though about what your protag was bringing into the scene. What kind of mood is s/he in? Ever notice how cheery people always find a way to see the bright side, even in dark situations? Maybe you’ve noticed how some people can find the flaw in anything, no matter how great it may be. Aren’t those people downers? Well, so can your characters be when you’re describing setting. Take your POV character and filter the world through them. Your happy character might notice the birds chirping, while the one who just got dumped can’t see past the barren spot in the yard where grass just refuses to grow, despite everything they do.
Personally, I find it easiest to simply write the scene objectively (as in, not filtered through anyone’s POV, or just a detail or two if I do) in the first draft. For me the first draft is just about getting words on the screen. In the subsequent drafts I can filter the world through the different lenses as needed. Then I can fix those words and make them better, make them flow, and make them unique to the character. I encourage every writer to try a variety of methods and see what works best for them. Remember, anything you don’t like can always be fixed, but first you have to get it written.
Hopefully you can take something from this, some mistakes I’ve made lots of times in the past, and try it out in your own writing. Does using setting to shed light on a character’s mood make the world, or the character, seem more realistic? Does using the setting to mirror the emotion of the scene make it more powerful? What are your methods for making a scene resonate with readers?
-C R Alexander