Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Three Key Points for Bringing a Setting to Life

Much of the novel I’m working on takes place outdoors, so lately I’m thinking a lot about setting. I’ve heard some writers talk about treating setting as another character. But what exactly does that mean?

To me, it means settings need to come to life for the reader. They should evoke feelings and moods. It’s not enough to include a few descriptive details about the location or weather. Every setting needs to be integrated into the story and given careful thought and attention, just the way a character would.

Some questions to think about: Why did you choose that setting? What is special about it? What does your character think about it? How does the setting make them feel?

The time you spend on the setting in your story depends on its importance. Like characters, different settings in the story are going to have different levels of importance for the reader. The hideout where the runaway kids hangout for several chapters has a different level of significance for the story than the coffee shop a teen ducks into for a single scene. (Why doesn’t she go back there again? How did she feel in that setting?)

Three key points to remember about the setting:

Settings are multi-sensory. This is a point that comes up over and over again in talking about descriptions, but it’s worth thinking about specifically in relation to setting. What does your character notice about the setting? Does it have specific smells? Tastes? Since I write middle grade fiction, I try to include one or two evocative descriptions, rather than whole paragraphs.

Settings are dynamic. Some elements of the setting can change over time. Sometimes I find that once I’ve described the setting, I kind of forget about it. But the characters are still there, interacting in it like a real place. Some things are going to change. Does the character feel as comfortable in the setting when it’s dark? How does the weather affect the setting? Are there mosquitoes out there?

Whether the character notices these changes or not, and what they think about the changes can help to create a stronger setting (and character). If setting is like a character, than the complete picture of a major setting will continue to develop as the story progresses.

Characters interact with the setting. This is related to the dynamic nature of the setting. I try not to think of the setting as just a backdrop for the action. Instead, I consider how it can shape the way characters act and think. Characters react to the setting. Setting can also create conflict, when a character comes up against an obstacle (e.g. gets caught in a storm, has be in a place they don’t want to be). Think about places where you feel comfortable or uneasy. What is it about the place and atmosphere that makes you feel that way? How does that change your behaviour?
Do you have any tips to help with creating a believable and authentic setting?

My critique partner, Christina Farley, has a great post about Creating Unique Details in Your Setting, with tips on getting inspiration from your own experiences.
Over at Project Mayhem, Dawn Lairamore draws attention to the weather with  How is the Weather in Your Middle Grade?

The BookShelf Muse has a comprehensive 4-part series on Creating Unforgettable Settings.
Jody Hedlund gives 5 Tips for Writing Better Settings and talks about genre expectations for settings and how the right setting details can help build suspense.



  1. What a great post! It is important to create a setting with depth. I like the three points you brought up and I enjoyed hearing how you create settings for MG books. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. I like to tie setting to POV. That is, what my MC would notice about this place at this time (given her emotional state and what she's going through) is how I decide what details to use. I also like to make sure smell and touch aren't neglected.


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