Setting; or, That Special Feeling

If you open any book called, say, How to Write Anything With the Slightest Possibility of Getting Published, there will be a chapter or a clipart bubble about setting. It doesn’t matter if your plot is unique, your dialogue is witty, and your prose is long-steeped in descriptive phrases. If you don’t have a sense of place and time for your scene, then it’s nothing more than a passing dream.

Setting is what grounds the story. It is what frames the story. It is what enriches the story.

The hard part is how to write setting well. I’m not an expert, but I do enjoy writing setting more than, well, any other part.

Here are some tips I use to develop setting:

1)   Decide on where the story takes place. Start big-picture, such as “a New York  public high school” or “the planet Schwarz.” Then work your way down to where the imminent action is taking place (“the janitor’s closet” or “on the riverbank”).

2)   Imagine what this place looks like—and then record every detail you can think of, going through the five senses. What colors do you see? What are the textures like in the rug, the pebbles, the crispy strings of the dried-out mop? What do you hear? Are there other people talking, far off? Is there an animal purring or howling? Is there water flowing or dribbling past? Can you hear the wind? Can you smell a paper mill? Or flowers? Or body odor? You get the idea. Work through these, and jot them down.

3)   Now, when does this scene take place?

4)   What sort of feeling do you want your reader to get from this time and place, in this scene?

Once you’ve got your setting all set up (haha), you’re ready for the fun part: weaving it in to the story.

Why don’t you just start off with several paragraphs describing every detail of the setting?

You can, but you might put your reader to sleep. My favorite thing to do is texturize the dialogue and some of the descriptions with little details that put the reader into the right frame of mind. I want her to feel the setting, as if she’s actually there. I want him to taste that cupcake. I want her to feel the sting of saltwater against her battle wounds. I want the reader to feel his bare feet against the cold marble tiles just as the main character feels them.

All the Feels…

To do this, you need to have your character notice these details. Don’t have your character tell the reader that the daylight is waning. Have him notice that the waxy leaves on the magnolia have lost their sheen and are deep in matte shadow. If the reader experiences these details while the characters notice them, it will develop immediacy and intimacy between the reader and the story. This is what I aim for every time I sit down to write.

Other tips:

1)   Setting descriptions are like salt…not enough, and the story is bland. Too much, and it turns the reader off.

2)   Let the details flow naturally in the story. Blend them into the dialogue, or the inner monologue (if there is any), or the narration.

3)   If you’re stuck, close your eyes and put yourself in your character’s shoes. This always grounds me back into the story.

Good luck!

(but worth it)

Amber Lough lives with her husband, their two kids, and their cat, Popcorn, in Syracuse, NY. She spent much of her childhood in Japan and Bahrain. Later, she returned to the Middle East as an Air Force intelligence officer to spend eight months in Baghdad, where the ancient sands still echo the voices lost to wind and time. Her Middle Eastern fantasy, THE FIRE WISH, is due from Random House Children’s in July 2014.

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