Monday, April 22, 2013

Writing A Novel - Setting

When I think back to some of the greatest stories I have ever read, setting is often a character in and of itself. I'm thinking of places like Hogwarts, Narnia, Middle Earth, The Capitol, Camp Half Blood, the list goes on. Of course, not all places have to be magical, mystical or fantastic - with the right author any "ordinary" setting can also be brought vividly to life on the page like John Green's Amsterdam in The Fault In Our Stars, or San Francisco in Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. The setting in a novel gives your story a solid foundation, a stage on which to be performed, a backdrop for your readers to envision. Sometimes, when writing your novel, the characters and their conflict take up so much of your focus that setting, unfortunately, falls into the forgettable background.

What Builds A Memorable Setting?

To ensure that your setting makes a true impact, you must build it with the very tools that we use to observe our settings in our own reality: the five senses. As you take your characters on a journey through conflict and drama, what do they see, what do they hear, feel, and taste? Describe them so that your readers experience the same.

I can't think of Hogwarts without remembering the tastes of Harry's first meal in the great castle, feeling the stairs moving beneath the characters' feet, or seeing all of the moving portraits the walls. Narnia brings chills as I remember the snow behind the coats in the wardrobe. Middle Earth harkens back so many sensory memories from the taste of lembas bread, the sound of the Horn of Gondor, the feel of the grass in the Shire and the smell of the seemingly endless pipe smoke. In the Hunger Games the setting is rich with coal dust, make-up, costumes, mysterious animals with growls, buzzes and eyes of terrifying familiarity.

The key with building a memorable setting into infuse these tasty little morsels just enough that they compliment your story without over powering it. I think of setting as the spices in our meal - if you balance out those flavors appropriately, you will take your story from bland to lip-smacking good, but if you put too much, your readers will be running for the hills looking for something to wash its memory away.

Set Your Scenes In Draft 1.5 
If you did not plot with setting in mind, then you should probably run through your first draft as quickly as possible and, before you commit yourself to second draft work, you should write draft 1.5 - the one where you pour through your story looking for the opportunities to spice up your scenes. Take that scene where your character turns away in anger and describe what she sees. Rewrite the flashback scene where your protagonist's grandmother imparts some life lesson so that it takes place in the kitchen, over a fully stocked stove - describe the smells, the sounds and the actions. I think, when your story is done, it can be easier to find the right places to add your spice to maximize its effect.

When I Write With Setting In Mind

In a post I wrote earlier today called Earth Day 1997 I wrote with setting in mind. I had a specific memory I wanted to reflect upon (since Earth Day is very important to me), but since I knew I was going to write about setting in this post I tried to use it as a focus for myself. What do you think? I tried to use my senses to bring the story to life. Could I have been more descriptive about the details of the physical places involved, sure... but I did have a story to tell that I didn't want bogged down by the mundane. It's a difficult task to take on. As I have written many times this month, I am no expert, but I'm practicing!

What are some memorable settings from your reading life? 
Are there any authors whose settings you particularly respect?
In your opinion, is there such a thing as "too much setting"? If so, what qualifies?
Thanks for reading!


  1. Setting is one thing I struggle with. Am I doing it enough? Right? I don't want my characters sitting in a blank setting when I know they are in a coffee shop. But I also don't want to over do it and describe so much that the reader gets bored.

  2. AH yes! Historical fiction - OF COURSE! Without setting, what would historical fiction be? Such rich descriptions and elegant balance is found in that genre for sure. Thank you for the reminder and all of the great suggestions!

  3. I think the "boring my reader" is the greatest fear with such descriptions. However, looking to CarrieAnn's comment above, it also reminds me that we must know our audiences. Those who love historical fiction have a great adoration for setting as it is, quite definitively, part of what they are reading that selection for; those who are jumping in to a paranormal thriller, or a romance, may not want as much. I think that is why, setting is also a difficult thing to seek out advice for in an audience of writers from all genres. Some are "cooking" extra-spicy for their audience, while other audiences can't handle the intense flavor! ;)