Setting is important. Obviously. Otherwise we’d have characters moving about in a bunch of white space, interacting with only each other, while creepy baby music plays overhead…you know, like those old Apple commercials.
Setting is most basically defined as where your story takes place. It can be as broad as the 21st century or as intricate as a specific room. But setting is not just a place you describe and be done with. Written right, setting can enhance, compliment, and become a part of your story just as much as any character. That said, here are three things to think about when crafting stronger settings:
Make it Personal:
Draw setting from your own life. Do you take notice of the daily surroundings and the settings you live in? If you’re a writer then you’re probably aware of the world around you, so that you can translate that awareness into the writing of your story. Of course, the level of detail you give your setting depends upon the kind of story you are trying to write.
An epic fantasy, for example, will require an enormous amount of detail so readers will be completely transported into the ‘reality’ of your fabricated world. But for a hardboiled detective novel, you might only focus on the most important details, creating sparseness in the prose that reflects the hard-edged nature of the story, but no less able to engage the reader.
Once you figure out the kind of story you’re writing, then you create the world. You visualize, you jot down notes—details, of which you must be aware of in your own life too. For each scene of the story, consider the sensory experience of the characters. What do your various settings look like? Smell like? What sounds are present in each locale? More importantly, how do your characters react and interact with their environment?
Make it Interactive:
Characters aren’t static (or they shouldn’t be), so why should the setting be any different? Characters pick up objects, look at things, and use parts of the setting to affect their dialogue or movements. If you’re not having a character interact with a setting, then you’re missing an important part of dialogue ‘beats’, the things that break up strings of dialogue and add texture and flavor to character interaction. Objects and setting prove to be more than just where the conversation is taking place; they can reflect the conversation the characters are having, and in some cases become the focus of conflict.
Having your characters actively engage with their surroundings will help ground readers in the world of the story. Do their environments aid or hinder their progress on their respective journeys? For that matter, what’s the weather like? Weather is tied to setting—it helps set the scene, convey mood, and project atmosphere. Setting will inform characters, and perhaps even vice versa.
You’ve probably seen the old bit where the lovesick hero is suddenly caught in a downpour of rain. This is a very obvious method of conveying the mood of the character through the elements. You can do this with setting and manipulate in any number of ways the effect it has on the character, and you can utilize it to move the story along or stop to make the reader focus on something important, like a certain detail vital to the plot. And again: the characters engage, the readers engage.
Make it Develop:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is one of the best books about growing up Sean has ever read. One reason the main character, Bod’s, transformation from youthful innocence to adulthood is so powerful is that we as readers get to see the transformation of his home—the graveyard—around him, and we get to see how his view of it changes as he grows.
When the book opens, the graveyard is a magical place (isn’t it always?), full of wonder and excitement. But, like most everyone, as we grow we begin to realize things are not as simple, or as magical, as they once were. That loss of wonder mirrors the loss in our own lives and strikes a much more meaningful chord near the end when Gaiman describes the setting as a shadow of what it once was.
How does your setting change over the course of your book (or series)? Like characters, setting too can change. If you use the same setting through the whole book, then it’s a little easier to show gradual change since the reader has a comparison from the beginning. Similarly, a character’s perception of their setting throughout the course of the book can change vastly, and the setting’s external changes can mirror the internal changes of the character.
Setting is so much more than a static entity in your story and, if done correctly, can become a character unto itself. Who can forget Hogwarts, or the Arena from Hunger Games? With a little more thought, your setting can take on a life of its own.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for the next post, leave them below.
Sean & Shawn