I can picture all the side eye I am getting from this post:
"Come on Mel, Setting?? Isn't that the same as World Building?? I see what you are doing..."
Well actually... World Building is creating the world in your mind, Setting is painting a picture of that world through the eyes of your character.
A great Setting enhances the story for your readers. It:
It's pretty dang important. Without Setting your characters just float in the blank, nothingness of plot.
How do we create a great setting? Below are some things that help me:
Use your World Building:
Not familiar with world building? Check out my mistakes (Part 1 and Part 2) before you start - trust me, you don't want to make my mistakes midway through writing your novel.
If you are a world building champion (I hate you), then you are all set to season your story with little bits of delicious setting. Examples:
Don't forget to include your character in these little gems, describe how they feel about these events and possibly use the senses to do so.
Engage the senses:
The senses are a powerful thing, they evoke reader memories and can highlight what is important in a setting. It makes the character seem more real and your setting more vivid.
Now, unless you are writing omniscient, stick to describing what your character can: see, taste, smell, hear, and feel at that given time. This helps ground the readers in the here and now of your story. You can use details that they have seen previously in to create a contrast of time or place, but I would sprinkle it in with a light hand.
But remember that the senses aren't limited to the big five, you can also add in:
Weak, golden sun fluttered through the brick hugged windows. Motes of dust danced in the cold stillness. Empty tables stood to attention around the room's periphery; lonely chairs nestled beneath them. Settling like a blanket over the room, the air was devoid of any mustiness despite being shut up over the summer. As if the sounds and smells had fled the halls once the final bell rang. The clock ticked, perched above a pristine board, marching along even though no one watched it.
I never once mentioned the word school or student, but (I am hoping) you gathered we were in a classroom just before school resumed. I used the sense of touch, sight, smell and hearing (taste would have been weird) in the writing above.
Sometimes writing an original setting is like a game of Taboo, you have to challenge yourself to describe a place without using the shortcut words. But not every setting needs a flowery description - which brings me to my next point.
Be specific and selective with what you include:
Does your reader need a twenty page description of an office that she will visit once? No.
The point of this section is to choose your descriptions wisely. If you want to spend a paragraph describing exactly what that wing back armchair looks like, there had better be a good reason. Someone better make love on it or it better be demon possessed. Otherwise, why are you wasting my time?
Questions to ask yourself:
** If your character is running for their lives, please do not take the time to describe the pot plants beside the desk she is ducking behind. She wouldn't notice it - she'd be too focused on the killer. It pulls the reader out of the story - the reader is wondering why the plant is so important. And it often ruins the pace - if she can stop to notice the plants is she really in danger?
Giving too much information slows the pace of your story, it shifts the focus from the plot and characters to the setting. Sometimes this is good. This can be done beautifully to explore themes around place and landscape, or to capture a mood. Be purposeful with your long winded descriptions, make them mean something - make their lazy behinds work for every letter that you are bestowing upon them.
Below is an example of descriptions that could have conveyed the same idea with much less:
The poulterers shops were still half-open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown- faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shop- keepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons...
Yes. I know.
I will wait for the hate mail to roll in.
How DARE I use Charles Dickens as an example of what not to do... the horror!!
But I mean, read it. (Yes. It is beautiful. Yes. It does set the scene - a minor one. Yes. It discusses the idea of Christmas Feasting as well as, creating a juxtaposition to the description of the same event earlier in the novel; which in turn highlights the growth of Scrooge's character. I get it.) When I was a teenager reading this I groaned so much at this scene. Why did I need to read a 40 word description of onions? I didn't. And to this day, I still don't. *shrugs*
And this is the point I am trying to make, did the onions propel the plot? Were they integral to the character's journey or solving a problem? No. So why waste words on things that might make readers skim read or even *gulp* put it in their DNF (Did Not Finish) pile? Today's market, especially if you are in YA, has no room for this overly purple prose. Your reader is being forced to read about something that has no importance, and thus, no place in your novel.
So save all your delicious descriptions for the places that are important or that your character will spend a lot of time in.
Use character interaction:
This one is my favorite. It is like allowing your character to lead your reader through their world. What they notice and interact with says a lot about your character. Every person will react to an environment in a different way, and the same person may react differently to the environment on different days (E.g. revisiting a place from childhood and it seems smaller than they remember). So when your POV (Point of View) changes or even when your character changes, alter the way you describe the world. Focus on different objects, interactions. Describe them in a way that feels authentic to the character.
Using quick, dynamic bits of setting concurrently with character action and dialogue adds depth to both your setting and your characters. YASS!
Say a character walks into a room, in the room their is a toy puppy. Characters can react in a variety of ways:
Using the descriptions of what is in the setting also tells us about the owner of the space:
Set the mood and foreshadow:
Using the weather, the temperature, the landscape or objects within a setting can help instill a the same feeling in our reader that the character is feeling. Have fun with the way you describe the things your character sees - they are not a objective viewer. Your character will never walk into a a room and go: "Oh, a red chair". chances are that they are going to have an opinion of that object based on their preferences, how they are feeling, whether they like the person who owns it or any past experiences with a red chair. Use this to your advantage.
Adjectives and verbs are your best friend. The choices you make with verbs and adverbs changes a somber downpour to refreshing rainstorm, or a ravenous deluge to an unwelcome precipitation, with a few synonyms and an adjective change.
So when describing, add depth to the setting by using words that emphasize the overall feeling your character has.
A mood filled with dread can be evoked in setting by using descriptions like:
The alluding to death, darkness and uncertainty gives the reader feelings of unease, of worry. But, using describing the same setting with different adjectives changes the feeling completely:
Setting can also foreshadow what is to come. Just like choosing the right adjective or verb choosing the right location for the event, or shaping the mood of the location can help readers guess what might happen next - leaving them with feelings of dread or excitement (Ahem - keeping them reading).
Think of it this way, if your sweetheart called you because they wanted to meet up "to talk" which setting would you prefer?
None of the settings would actually influence the outcome of the conversation, the person knows what they want to say, but the setting gives us an idea what the outcome might be. This is a fun literary device to play with, because we can lead a reader to a resolution that they feel is satisfying (they saw it coming) or you can punch them in the throat with an unexpected plot twist (E.g. the character on the cliff is proposed to, the character in the restaurant is dumped).
Be a little ambiguous:
Lastly, leave a little to the imagination. Allow your reader to insert themselves in your world, allow them the space to imagine it how they like. The brain is a fickle little fellow, if it thinks that something looks one way and you tell it otherwise, every time that setting comes up it will protest. It jars against the reader - pulling them out of the setting/story briefly.
Ambiguity is not vague! Be as specific as you can with your word choice when you do describe something, but don't describe everything (E.g. Coffee cup - describe the color, if it is empty, the lipstick mark on it, but then leave out things like the exact location in the room of the table it is on, how much liquid it can hold, how it reminds you of the cup you had that broke - or vice versa). The idea is don't bog your readers down with describing EVERYTHING about the setting and object.
Again this is why choosing what to describe and how to describe it is so important. If in doubt - leave it out.
Thanks for reading this behemoth.
Until next time: make your settings work hard for you.